Globe Theatre, 104 London St, Dunedin

28/02/2019 - 09/03/2019

Production Details

Death of a Salesman premiered on Broadway in 1949 to much acclaim, including a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. A modern day classic, it has been produced countless times in theatres all over the world, but has not been seen on the Globe Theatre stage since 1975. To remedy that, we are proud to present Death of a Salesman as the spearhead for our 2019 season, in the year of its 70th anniversary.

When Arthur Miller was interviewed about his play in 1999, he said that to try to boil it down to a sentence was beyond him. It is this complexity and nuance which makes the story compelling, yet hard to classify. Death of a Salesman focuses on a man (Willy Loman) and his family as their lives unravel for reasons foreseeable yet wilfully ignored. This self-delusion predicates the dramatic action in the play, as well as its themes of ambition, denial and regret, fantasy and reality.

Death of a Salesman may be described as a tragedy and social commentary, dealing with the dynamics of family, showing what happens when someone can’t walk away from a dream that has deserted them. While Death of a Salesman is set in Brooklyn, and premiered in 1949, it transcends time and place. Natural voice is used throughout the production, rather than Brooklyn accents.

The costumes draw some inspiration from the era the play premiered, but are not strictly bound by it. The set and art design are stark and minimalist. Director Paul Ellicott believes these choices help to showcase Death of a Salesman in an even more immediate and relatable way; prompting us to reflect and consider our own assumptions and values; telling a story that stays with us long after the play is over.

The Globe Theatre, 104 London Street, Dunedin
28 February – 9 March 2019
2pm Matinee Sunday 3 March

Willy Loman:  Craig Storey
Linda Loman:  Kay Masters
Biff Loman:  Brook Bray
Happy Loman:  Cain Sleep
Charley:  Campbell Thomson
Bernard:  Vinny Batt
Uncle Ben:  Dale Neill
The Woman:  Lauren Meckel
Howard Wagner:  Cheyne Jenkinson
Jenny/Letta:  Virginia Sanders
Stanley:  Thomas Makinson
Miss Forsythe:  Kimberley Mark

DIRECTOR:  Paul Ellicott

Stage Manager:  Gemma Fraser
Set design/construction:  Ray Fleury & Don Vialle
Poster design/set art:  Chris Vialle
Lighting & Sound Operator:  Helen Fearnley
Costumes:  Ensemble & Sofie Welvaert
Lighting design:  Brian Byas
Front of house manager:  Leanne Byas  

Theatre ,

Approx. 3hrs incl. 2 short intervals

A timely revival

Review by Terry MacTavish 02nd Mar 2019

Death of a Salesman is an education for fathers and sons, says my guest, himself a caring son and a quite exemplary father to two young boys. I’m astonished when he adds that when he was only 25 he actually bought the play to read and, greatly impressed, gave it to his own father, presumably in the hope of encouraging some meaningful dialogue.

This is a play that examines the way the American Dream is passed down from father to son, and the cost of the high expectations that come with a great love between the generations. Which is worse, I wonder: to be the son who disappoints or the father who outlives his child’s hero-worship?  

Arthur Miller’s iconic creation, Willy Loman, embodies the go-getter attitude of post-war America. He starts out believing a successful salesman can be a modern hero, opening up new territory and making important contacts, eventually becoming so ‘well-liked’ that at his death his funeral will be magnificent: an enormous affair attended by hundreds.

We see the young optimistic Willy only in flashbacks however, when his dreams are still shared by his loving family, wife Linda and sons Biff and Happy.  The arresting opening scene instead shows an aging Loman stumbling into his house after a long day on the road in which he has failed to make a sale. His wife waits patiently to provide comfort, while his grown sons smoke and chat in the bedroom they shared as boys. Biff, the elder, once a star athlete with brilliant prospects, has returned from his work as a mere farm labourer in the West. This has temporarily brought home his still-admiring younger brother Happy, now more successful as a womaniser than in his mediocre job.

The unusual dramatic structure of Death of a Salesman can be challenging to an audience but director Paul Ellicott has ensured there is no confusion, managing deftly and convincingly the shifts between the two time zones and also the fantasies that fill Willy Loman’s addled brain. The stripped-back set (by Ray Fleury and Don Vialle) serves the play very well, the action flowing easily from the two bedrooms above, down to the family kitchen, with a fridge in pride of place, opening to the garden that is being overtaken by ‘progress’, the buildings that hem it in evoked by white painted windows against the black bricks of the theatre. Nice.

The costumes are neutral too, and the accents are ‘natural’, although the lovely rhythms of Miller’s language are so insistent that the actors cannot help but be seduced into a distinctively American sound. Whatever, it all fits neatly together to allow the audience to feel it is in comfortably familiar territory. I relax into the world of the Loman family, here or America, 1949 or 2019, and for over three hours am engrossed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that is a significant part of theatre history. 

Ellicott creates a convincing central family, with dark undercurrents that intrigue from the outset. Craig Storey is strong in what is actually one of the great tragic roles of the twentieth century. We waver between disgust and sympathy, as Miller intended. This is a character who, despite his moments of vulnerability, is a bully, who can all too easily become loud and bombastic, so I particularly appreciate the gentleness of Storey’s delivery, helped in no small part by his truly mellifluous voice.  

Kay Masters as Linda is the archetypal submissive wife, utterly loyal to Willy, but showing little sparks of independent thought, and on occasion real anger towards her sons when they threaten their father’s cherished image of himself as a successful salesman. Masters is appealing and believable, though she could perhaps display more joie de vivre in her scenes as a younger woman when the dream is still alive for her too.  The contrast would contribute to the poignancy of Biff’s distress on his return when he sees how she has aged. 

The sons as children are a delight, bouncing excitedly round their father to welcome him home, sitting literally at his feet and commandeering their admiring friends into helping with the Loman household chores to impress him.  

Brook Bray as golden boy Biff gives a beautifully nuanced performance, glowing as the all-star athlete, tortured as the man who can never live up to his father’s expectations, as resentful and bitter as he once was adoring and confident. Yet he is the only one who is trying, increasingly desperately, to be honest with himself and his family.

Cain Sleep as Happy is similarly engaging, first as the eager boy who does not mind living in his big brother’s shadow, then wonderfully suave and sleazy as the man who seduces girls to spite their more successful boyfriends. It is this less favoured son who seems to have inherited his father’s more despicable characteristics.

The Loman family in the early days, though, forms a tight knit group, keeping at a distance well-meaning neighbour Charley (played with brusque kindliness by Campbell Thomson) and his nerdy but useful son Bernard.

Ironically the despised Bernard, very effectively portrayed by Vinny Blatt, not only graduates as a high-flying lawyer, but is the one who comes closest to really communicating with Willy and breaking through his self-delusions. Through Bernard’s probing, it gradually becomes apparent that Biff has given up at a crucial moment in his career path because of some traumatic event in a Boston hotel, where he had sought out his father for help in a crisis.

This scene is the climax we are waiting for, one that should resonate, for most children have to face the realisation that their parents fall short of the idealised picture they once had of them, and feel disappointed, even betrayed. The hotel bedroom is upstage and rather cramped, which does not help the actors, and the lighting (designed by Brian Byas), which is pleasingly subtle throughout, here seems somewhat inadequate. But the impact is powerful nevertheless, as much that was merely hinted at is suddenly all too clear. 

The supporting actors make a solid contribution, despite Miller’s having written the women, apart from Linda, pretty much as cyphers.  Cheyne Jenkinson however makes the most of Willy’s revoltingly slimy upstart boss, and Dale Neill is charming as Willy’s recently deceased brother, Ben, with whom he has many illuminating conversations. Ben in fact is the one who has really lived the American Dream, becoming a wealthy, successful man – all that Willy has yearned to be. Instead, at the end of his life, Willy has come to believe he is worth more to his family dead than alive.

The Globe is to be praised for mounting a classic play that is both worthy and indeed timely, considering that Americans have elected as President a boor who, to many, epitomises this very ‘Dream’ in which the pursuit of happiness means the pursuit of money – even if that means despoiling the earth and trampling on the dreams of others! And of course the dynamics of family are compelling and universal, inviting us to consider the true inheritance we offer our children. 

Once the actors pick up pace and confidence, Ellicott’s sensitive production will certainly do justice to a play that for seventy years has challenged us to question our values, our illusions, and our impact on those closest to us.

Still puzzling over the fraught father/son bond, I turn at last to my friend, who tells me he is imagining how awful it would be in the future to have his young sons say such things to him. But what did he hope for, when he gave his own father Death of a Salesman to read? “Just understanding,” he says rather sadly. Here’s hoping the Globe’s presentation of Miller’s classic will create a little more understanding of the yearning felt by both child and parent simply for, dare I say it, unconditional love. 


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