Death of a Salesman is a play by Arthur Miller that explores the depressive and manic mind of salesman Willy Loman; accompanied by the stories of the broken relationships he has forged with his sons and his oblivious yet loving wife. Immediately upon entry, I was greeted by a jazz drumbeat that echoed all around the stage. It creates an unnerving atmosphere that sounds like the beginnings of universally recognised songs that lull you into a false sense of familiarity, masking the myriad of emotions still to be discovered throughout the play.
The play opens with Willy (Dom Warrington) returning from a business trip, however we quickly discover that not everything is so ordinary as Willy has to return before he even arrives in Boston. The reason? He had been daydreaming at the wheel, deeming it too dangerous to carry on. Warrington’s raspy, weary voice adds some warmth to the fragility of his character whilst still keeping Willy’s unintentionally aggressive nature prevalent.
The theme of uneasiness is carried throughout as we are introduced to Willy’s wife Linda Loman (Maureen Beattie) and his two sons Biff (Ashley Zhangazha) and Happy (Buom Tihngang). Happy is the younger of the two and is constantly trying unusually hard to impress both his parents, but in particular Willy. However, his attempts are futile as they both dismiss him as nothing more than the image of a small boy trapped in his dad’s oversized suit on his way to a mundane 9-5 job. The role of boy trapped in a man’s body should in fact fall upon his older brother Biff, who is venerated by his parents preconceived notions of who they think he is – the same happy-go-lucky, slightly deviant yet charming boy he was in high school; a description that couldn’t be further from reality.
As the play progresses, we start to see Willy’s mind unravel as he starts to play out memories from days gone by. Warrington portrays Willy as a hardened man who struggles to cope with his failing relationship with his sons and this comes across in Warrington’s incredible use of voice projection and special awareness. He uses the whole stage to his advantage and even when presented with a challenging text such as the Death of a Salesman, he carries it off as if he was reading a children’s storybook. It is amazing to be able to watch him wander around the stage, seeing him plan out exactly what is going to happen next and undertaking it with no falter in his actions. Equally Biff’s storyline gets increasingly problematic as he copes with knowledge of his father’s previous encounters with scandal and the fact that his father is deteriorating before his own eyes. It would be an understatement to say that the way Zhangazha portrays Biff is incredible; every movement, every gesture and every pause is carried out with such beauty.
During the second half, Warrington and Zhangazha’s characters almost switch as Willy becomes more childlike and adopts the mannerisms that he tells Biff to stop in order to become a man. Watching the relationship between Warrington and Zhangazha on stage makes it so unbelievably realistic that to look away from the stage for any longer than to blink, would have been doing them a disservice. This play isn’t all doom and gloom though as the sprinklings of humour throughout help to break up the serious moments of the play to make it a more enjoyable watch, equally the little elements of love seen between Willy and Linda are, at times, heart-breaking to watch.
Death of a Salesman is carried start to finish by the entire cast, with special mentions to Zhangazha and Will Merrick (as Bernard) who captivated me from their first to final lines. Overall this play is incredible, and successfully holds the fascination of a packed Royal Exchange audience for 90 minutes and will continue to do so until 17 November.
Death Of A Salesman is playing at Royal Exchange in Manchester until 17 November. For more information and tickets, click here.