Death of a Salesman

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

01/04/2006 - 06/05/2006

Production Details

By Arthur Miller
Directed by Susan Wilson

Set Designer John Hogkins
Costume designer Donna Jefferis

“He is a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine… A salesman’s got to dream boy.” – Death of a Salesman


As the 30th Birthday production CIRCA are delighted to present Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece Death of a Salesman,  in CIRCA ONE.


This remarkable play premiered in New York in 1949, stunning audiences and winning numerous awards including six Tonys. Hailed as the first great play to question the American consumer dream it remains a classic, and is one of the most celebrated plays in the world, with Miller considered one of the greatest dramatists in the history of the American Theatre.

George Henare as Willy
Jennifer Ludlam as his wife Linda
Jason Whyte as Biff

Theatre ,

2 hrs 35 mins, incl. interval

Father and son's torment makes for gut-wrenching theatre

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 08th Apr 2006

It is fitting that to celebrate the achievements of Circa Theatre over the past 30 years that they have chosen one of the all time classics of American theatre – Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman. This difficult and complex play epitomises everything about America and the American Dream and the way so many people have had this dream shattered.

In this production director Susan Wilson and her excellent cast gets to the heart of Miller’s ideals, drawing out all the emotional turmoil of Willy Loman and his family as they struggle for a better life, dreaming of what will never be as everything about slowly disintegrates. 

Willy has been a travelling salesman all his life, continually struggling to make ends meet, devotingly supported by his wife Linda.  While his youngest son, Happy, has a job, albeit a lowly one, his eldest son, Biff, is still searching, never settling. It’s partly because of his kleptomaniac tendencies but also because of the pressures from his father to be what he, Willy, never was. 

Ben, Willy’s brother has made it big, as has his neighbour Charley, and Charley’s son, Bernard But Willy has his pride and his dream and never admits to being beneath any of them, his driving force being his dreams of grandeur and of what is waiting around the corner. But this can’t continue forever. Willy eventually pays the ultimate price, and sacrifices his life for his family.

The structure of Miller’s play is incredibly demanding in that, though the action in real time occurs over only 24 hours, many scenes revert to an earlier time, when the family is growing up and we see Willy’s dream evolving and ultimately shattered. 

Set Designer John Hogkins has cleverly created a composite set of greys and browns to cope with Miller’s demands. Though looking too clean and sterile, the set aids the action well. The cast, under Wilson’s astute direction, move effortlessly about with confidence.

The large cast, dressed authentically by costume designer Donna Jefferis, capture the essence of both the mood and time of the play, giving strong support to the central characters. 

And it is the central triangle of George Henare as Willy, Jennifer Ludlam as his wife Linda and Jason Whyte as Biff who are the stand out performers in this production. 

The mercurial mood swings of Willy – as one moment he’s dreaming and the next being made to face reality – are superbly portrayed by Henare.  Animated and full of energy he gives a performance of a lifetime. 

Whyte’s Biff is also a ball of fire, screaming internally to be understood, his emotional outbursts, so well controlled are nevertheless incredibly heartfelt.  The torment that father and son put themselves through in this production is at times gut wrenching. 

Linda, the wife, mother and ultimate peace maker, is beautifully underplayed by Ludlam in contrast to the raw energy of the two men.  Yet she conveys with sincerity and integrity the pain and heart ache a wife and mother experiences as her family slowly implode. 

It makes this production one of the outstanding ones for Circa this year. It is more than worthy of celebrating their 30th Anniversary.


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World class production of modern classic

Review by John Smythe 02nd Apr 2006

Anyone who feels they missed out on the production of the year because they couldn’t get tickets to The History Boys, or they did then couldn’t hear it, should get themselves to Circa for Death of a Salesman: a great production of a modern classic.

If you did get to lots of Festival shows and think that’s the where cutting edge is for theatrical ingenuity, it’s worth rediscovering the playwrighting sophistication of Arthur Miller. He effortlessly blends present and past, reality and fantasy, subjective and objective truth.

When Death of a Salesman – his third produced play – opened in 1949, Miller was the same age as Biff, the older son of the titular travelling salesman, Willy Loman. Having been a drifter out west, working for peanuts as a farm hand, Biff is yet again back home in Brooklyn, seeking a stronger sense of direction. "Not finding yourself at the age of 34?" rages the volatile Willy, who had been so excited by his impeding return. "It’s a disgrace!"

What’s up for scrutiny, as Biff faces his own future, is the value system that has brought his father to his current state of imbalance. When a man has personality and is well liked, Willy has always believed, he will be successful, and to prove it hundreds of colleagues and customers will flock to his funeral. Simple. Except his quest for respect, wealth and love becomes elusive when self-deception prevails and self-respect has eroded, especially when pride blocks any chance of redemption.

It emerges that Biff’s faith in the invincibility of his dream-weaving father was shattered, at a time when his own value as a rising sports star was up for question. Deep wounds were inflicted that, 15 years later, are yet to heal. It is the Will-Biff stand-off that energises the play by festering at its core.

Adding to the cauldron of conflict are their respective brothers. While Biff allows his father no fallibility, he goes along with his brother Happy’s compulsive womanising. Conversely Willy did not go along, years ago, with his globe-trotting brother Ben’s offer of a job in Alaska, managing a timber investment for him. Now Happy’s hedonism challenges Biff’s attempts to find his moral centre, while the late Ben looms large as the brother-made-good in Willy’s increasing departures from objective reality.

Attempting to maintain equilibrium in this unstable mini-universe is wife and mother Linda, indelibly loyal, quietly pragmatic, yet contributing to the imbalance through her own need to believe in the Willy Loman mystique. She even resorts to emotional blackmail to protect their collective delusions.

As Willy and Linda, George Henare and Jennifer Ludlam are totally compelling, moving with consummate skill from the insufferable burdens of the present to the optimism of the past, and back again. Likewise Jason Whyte and Simon Vincent inhabit Biff and Happy as men and boys with total conviction.

In manifesting sincere human beings who are also their own worst enemies, each of these four commands our empathy in ways that demand our constant re-evaluation of the rights and wrongs of the gradually revealed situation. They lead a world-class cast of eleven, and when all the actors work so well together to authenticate each role and the play as a whole, major credit must go to the director, Susan Wilson.

From next door, Robert Tripe’s Bernard is winningly gauche as a boy and wonderfully centred as a top-flight lawyer, while the irritating and very human qualities of his small businessman father, Charley, are deftly captured by K.C. Kelly.

In her brief appearances as The Woman, Jane Waddell sketches in a telling cameo of a career woman adrift in the world of commerce. Completing the female role call, Renee Sheridan does the same for the next generation as Miss Forsyth – who may be a working woman of a different kind – while Julia Watkin doubles neatly as her friend Letta and a secretary, Jenny.

Julian Wilson also doubles to great effect as Willy’s young and impervious boss, Howard Wagner – privileged son of the man who started the firm and first employed Willy – and bantering Bronx waiter Stanley.

As the idealised Uncle Ben, impervious to the inner turmoils of mere mortals as he floats through Willy’s daydreams in a golden glow, Ken Blackburn is unimpeachable.

Another superb lighting design by Martyn Roberts’ elucidates the action amid John Hodgkins’ marvellously compact multi-level inside-outside set, ingeniously constructed to suggest the Brooklyn skyline beyond. Again, nothing detracts from the play and everything supports it.

The same should be said for the costumes, designed by Donna Jefferis, except for one strangely bloomer-like pair of plus fours that Charley’s obliged to wear. Finally an accolade for the music (consultant Michael Nicolas Williams), which evokes the flutes Willy’s variously fabled father made and sold, and simmers beneath the memories.

Susan Wilson and her team have attended to every detail, producing a result that tells Wellingtonians and visitors to Wellington alike that if they want to see world class theatre, they don’t have to wait for festivals to brings talent in from overseas. It’s  available right here, right now. What’s more, for about the price of one International Festival ticket you can see shows at Circa, Downstage and Bats. So do it.


Brian Hotter April 28th, 2006

I agree with John in comparing Circa's production of Death Of A Salesman to the International Arts Festival. Hell I saw History Boys and other than been one of the youngest people there, I was without a doubt the most bored. What the hell do I care about the academic achievements of a bunch of snotty nose British shits? But for some reason I do care deeply for the characters created by and performed in this production of Death of a Salesman. I have always loved this play. A year before I went to drama school I invested a lot of my time reading what I thought of as the Modern Classics. A big part of those were the American Modern Classics, including the works of Eugene O'Neil, Tennessee Williams and of course Arthur Miller. Who can turn the nose up at View From A Bridge or All My Sons? All My Sons now there is a play! But back to this show! I had high expectations and on a whole they were exceeded. Let’s face it Willy Loman is the star of the show, it's his story, every thing else happens in my opinion is just biding time for the actor playing Willy to take a breather and come back on for another round of heart wrenching madness. So the actor who was to portray Willy has to be onto it. He has to be an actor who is at the top of his game. Thank God in this production those shoes where filled by George. His performance in short is beautiful. I was moved by the simplest lines. What makes him so good is he makes it all look easy, a show sign of a master. Jennifer was also gorgeous as Linda. All the supporting roles where brilliantly realised. Goddamn it was the best production I have seen in years.

Russell Nash April 3rd, 2006

and 1nce again big ups to Eric Gardiner for his invaluable work behind stage keeping everything running smoothly!

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