Sunday, September 2, 2012

Death of a Salesman

Photo by Heidrun Lohr


Belvoir St Theatre presents DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller in the Upstairs Theatre.

Dear Diary,

I saw this production by Simon Stone of DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller, several weeks ago.

I have struggled with my response. I have put it off, and off, and off. For, there were somethings that I enjoyed, and yet, I was very discontented. Ultimately, very, very frustrated and unhappy.

It seems that I have only written negative responses to recent work in the two major companies,'houses', in Sydney. Especially, work concentrated about the recent flurry, nay storm, of the utilising of other writers' work and reputations, to present, I suppose, what someone feels is a more relevant , and so, in most cases, an overtly, Australianised 'version' of the original, by re-writing, editing or completely 'highjacking' the original (I thought just doing it with Australian artists, through our own cultural circumstances, would have Australianised it enough). THE WILD DUCKSTRANGE INTERLUDE,  FACE TO FACE, GROSS UND KLEINTHE WHITE GUARDTHE DUCHESS OF MALFI, and, wearily, others. Too surprising and dispiriting, in number, to recollect. It is especially unsettling when I feel it is only me that feels negative, partially, if not wholly, at least, about the recent trend. The norm of contemporary theatre in Sydney of late.

However, last Friday evening whilst waiting to go into a theatre,to see a new Australian play, I had a casual conversation with one of Australia's emerging, emerged, young, contemporary playwrights (one I have considerable belief in) and he expressed a comfort with the production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN at the Belvoir. That,was, enough. It was a necessary, sufficient catalyst for me to just settle down and write. Many of my regular readers have been enquiring as to my reticence and non-comment on the Belvoir production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN (still it has taken another week to do!).

So, back to the chase: "No matter", the young writer said, that he knew that the final scene, the Epilogue, written by Mr Miller as the ultimate intention of the original artist's artistic vision, had been entirely removed from this production. What that Epilogue did dramaturgically for Mr Miller we did not discuss, and how its absence may have slewed the writer's intentions also did not get aired. A noisy foyer was not the place for sensible or comfortable discussion.I did wonder what liberties I could make with this writer's work before he became discomforted with my 'tinkerings'. Maybe, changing key causal events, misrepresenting or diluting or just removing aspects of the prose and poetic storytelling structure, would be agreeable to him and I could still use the title and have his nomenclature as the author and it would be OK! Get me a pen or a delete button!!

I chaffed a little.

However, I asked, "Tell me, can you remember how Willy died?" I was told, by this writer, that Willy died by gassing himself in the body of his car. And, indeed, if you saw the Belvoir production of this play that is how he died. I mentioned that that was not Miller's choice. That in fact, Miller had Willy drive off at full speed, suggesting through the storytelling, that Willy Loman killed himself by driving at high speed and crashing - an altogether different poetic construct, than the one at Belvoir - a construct, that was more than poetic, I believe, but necessarily logical to the dramaturgical want of Miller for Willy, to give the surviving Loman family the benefits of his Insurance Policy. Maybe, like Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, with her pistol, in the face of societal judgement of dishonour, Willy chose, the gesture of suicide, as a kind of 'heroic' gesture to maintain his dignity in the machinations of the conventions of the society he lived in? I wonder, then, did Willy die for naught in this production? After all, it is clearly a suicide with the elaborately taped window and equipment as evidence, and would the Insurance Company cough up? Or, maybe this new vision of Willy's gesture, by this company, is simply an underlining of the premise mentioned in the Belvoir electronic program notes (no hard copies available, the night I attended!), that Willy is a loser. The Insurance Company would not pay up and so the gesture was an ultimate act of a real loser, in this case a true-blue Aussie loser: the DEATH OF OF A REAL LOSER, by Simon Stone. But, hey, the designed (Ralph Myers) final image was striking, don't you think? Willy enveloped in gassy smoke, beautifully lit (Nick Schlieper) with the calls of Linda to bring Willy to bed, "Willy, you coming up?", that could be heard, pathetically, coming from their off-stage bedroom (- strange that she or any of her family did not hear the car engine, idling away, downstairs in the garage, especially as they knew of Willy's plans, and come to investigate).

The writer was surprised about the Miller choice, or, appeared to me, to be.

I was chaffed, and sadly moved. I had to go into the theatre to see the new Aussie play. The writer went over to some other young artists to have drinks at the new hip bar at the end of the STC wharf complex, with its white tiles and signs to DRINK or EAT. Boy, was it 'going off' and it was only 8 o'clock. It seemed not many of the customers were heading into the play! Odd? Not really when you look closer at the demographic of the crowd. When the play finished, the bar was still 'raging', DRINKing or EATing, or, both DRINKing and EATting. I saw some of the artists still there and waved as I left. No use looking for the young writer as he hadn't seen the new Australian play yet and so conversation would be limited. He had said that he would try to get to see it, soon.We can talk about it, next time we meet, I guess. And ask about the drink and food at the Wharf Bar, too.

Now, if this highly respected writer, one would assume a literate reader of his craft, did not know that this famous and great play had been so drastically re-configured, re-written, just how many of the ordinary audience also believed that Willy Loman had killed himself by gassing himself in Arthur Miller's "version" of DEATH OF A SALESMAN? A literary untruth. A dramatic licence of some licence, I thought. I may be wrong, of course and just an old fuddy duddy. Not 'hip' enough to go with the cultural colonisation of other people's work, to make it comprehensible, relevant, for the contemporary, 'indigenous' and maybe, stupid, Sydney audience (what? they can't read metaphor in the theatre? They manage it in their living rooms on television and at most cinema excursions to do the adjustments to relevancy, it seems, considering the reported Box Office returns of most O.S. TV programs and films). The audience I saw it with, generally, were highly receptive to this production, or performance, and most of them, it seems, believe that they have seen Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN. All or most, I guess, believe that Willy died by carbon monoxide gas and not a high speed crash. All or most of them, I guess, do not know of Linda's bewilderment as the final statement of the Arthur Miller play' "... Why did you ever do that?... Why did you do it? I search, and I search, and I can't understand it, Willy. ..." It had been excised.

I have come across a series of essays by Arthur Miller himself : The Theatre Essays of Arthur Miller, edited and introduced by Robert A Martin, published by Methuen in 1999. One is entitled: ON ADAPTATIONS. It is talking specifically about the adaptation of great classics for television. But there is some relevance here to the recent habit of the Sydney theatre, two main houses.

Here are one or two, (actually, 6) quotes:

"Only one thing is lost by 'digesting' great works, and it is possibly the main thing, namely, the depth of the experience one might find in the originals" ( arguably, hello, STRANGE INTERLUDE).
 "We are breaking the continuity of culture by passing on its masterpieces through mutilated distortions." (arguably hello, THE DUCHESS OF MALFI).
"As it is, nothing less than a deception is being carried on, a private act of misinformation and miseducation". ( arguably, and, especially as it is a school literary text for study - there were several schools in the audience I saw it with, accounting for some of the sell-out, no seat available, I imagine - hello, DEATH OF A SALESMAN). 
"Worse than utter ignorance is the knowledge that is not knowledge but its shadow. (arguably,hello, the supposed Shakespearean,THE WAR OF THE ROSES *)
 "After all, those who are knowledgeable enough to adapt classics are to that degree in charge of then for the moment, so to speak, and are as responsible as a librarian who tears out half the pages of a work in order to get more busy people to read it. The justification that half (or, less of it) is better than nothing does not hold when one knows the humanizing power of the originals. You cannot digest a real work of art because it is digested in the first place; it is the ultimate distillation of the author's vision by definition." (Hello, THE WILD DUCK).
"Failing this, the digests of such works ought not to bear their original titles any more than a diluted beer or perfume can be sold with the brand name of the manufacturer who makes the real thing. The integrity of a masterpiece is at least equal to that of a can of beans." (All of the above, and, others too numerous to name, hello, a lot....!)

The integrity of masterpieces is worth more than a can of beans. I would have thought that, too. The Beethoven Ninth Symphony, without the Ode To Joy movement, because I feel it is out of kilter with the feeling of these distraught times - it is more meaningful without it - its very absence is more meaningful to Beethoven's intentions, today, than with it! Is it then the Ninth Symphony? Is it Beethoven? At the Belvoir did we see Ibsen's THE WILD DUCK? Or, THE WILD DUCK, by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan, after Ibsen? Or, is it "DUCK VARIATIONS" by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan, or, as I have heard from another, THE LAME DUCK? Choose a title to help make the most money at the box office. Discuss, Which title would you choose and say why. Can you think of a better?

This is just my "artist's" opinion, but I do believe that, along with Anton Chekhov's THREE SISTERS (I only know it, regrettably, in translation), Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN ranks up there as two of the greatest achievements in the theatre of the last century, (of any century, dare I?) - They are in my experience masterpieces of playwrighting.

The published text of Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN, his approved version of his play, created with the collaboration of all the other artists of the 1949 production, and copywrighted by him and his Estate, is a blueprint for all of us to solve, involved artists and paying audience, and take into our life resources for living. The timeless and universal power of this play is on record throughout theatre world history since its original conception. Simply google the relevant codes.

The fact that the audience I saw this production with was pleased, proves that even in this mutilated version of the play, artistically, misinforming the audience of Mr Miller's choices, it is great enough to survive, and has a potency of enormous power. One wonders what could have been achieved here at Belvoir, with the talent available, if Arthur Miller's published text was honoured at Belvoir with a 'closer' reading of the potential of that text. Without the need to re-rite or just omit other clues, directions. It is recognised as a great dramatic masterpiece as it was written and published, still today all around the world, except,it seems,here, at Belvoir. Who needs to re-write it, to tell a story relevant for the Sydney audience?

The Ensemble Theatre proved the power of the original a few years ago with their production at the Seymour Centre with Sean Taylor, Jackie Weaver, Anthony Gooley and Sam O'Sullivan. **** Here in Sydney, I remember the Old Tote version (1970) with Ben Gabriel, Betty Lucas; and the Nimrod version at the Seymour Centre with Warren Mitchell, Judi Farr, Mel Gibson. The Dustin Hoffman film and the Frederick March film, are also in my memory banks.This Belvoir stage production is the first time that I was not moved to tears - it was first time that I did not have a personal catharsis. This production was denied the epic scale of the writing and was reduced, mostly, to a slight, though intense, reading. A symphony reduced to a tone poem.There was no slap here, just a pointing.

From the text: "A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling us of grass and trees and the horizon.
Before us is the SALESMAN'S house...."

This production: No music to start with, that I recall (Composer and Sound Design, Stefan Gregory).
Before us: a black walled and floored void with a white, Australian made Ford Falcon situated  (Set Design, Ralph Myers).

There is actually a detailed one and a half page description of Arthur Miller and his team's vision for the setting of the play, that had evolved from the textual analysis of the play as written, and, although Mr Miller's initial conception was that the play was to be performed on a bare stage with three raised platforms, this is the final decision which he found worked best for his art." Jo Mielziner took the platforms and designed an environment around them that was romantic and dreamlike yet at the same time lower middle-class. His set, in a word, was an emblem of Willy's intense longing for the promises of the past, with which indeed the present state of his mind is always conflicting, and it was thus a both a lyrical design and a dramatic one. ... Jo was stretching reality in parallel with the script." (2).

The house and the paying of its mortgage is the central driving energy of Willy (Colin Friels) and Linda (Genevieve Lemon) Loman's life. The tragic reverberation of this core drive is echoed in Linda's last speech at the grave (cut from this production): "Willy, I made the last payment on the house today. Today dear. And there'll be nobody home. We're free and clear ( FREE AND CLEAR, a title of the play that Miller toyed with for a while, by the way )...We're free... We're free..." The house ownership is the tangible goal of the attainment of the American Dream. Given that Mr Stone has set his production in Australia, accents and all,(though keeping the written anchoring American locations), the dream of house ownership seems to me even more potent a resonance. Why, then, the car? - I read an interesting review of the new French film HOLY MOTORS, it set in a car, noting that the new Cronenberg : COSMOPOLIS was also set in a car. Maybe, suggested the reviewer, the car is the new generation aspired dream!! The home, house, ownership even more crushing or impossible, today, while the car is still accessible?! That there is no house and the surrounding pressure of development image around them in this production, as suggested by the original creative team, reduces the impact of the literary text as dramatic action on this stage, for me. Having only a car on the stage was I thought overstating the suicide weapon imagery, a bit like having a giant gun as the only setting for Hedda Gabler. "The play grew from simple images. From a little frame house on a street of little frame houses, which had once been loud with the noise of growing boys, and then was empty and silent and finally occupied by strangers. Strangers who could not know the conquistadorial joy Willy and his boys had once (when they) re-shingled the roof. Now it was quiet in the house, and the wrong people in the beds." (1). The house is a constant image for the attaining of the American Dream in their dramatic literature. The Steppenwolf , AUGUST : OSAGE COUNTY, wonderfully so in the Sydney Theatre a few years ago. Check out O'Neill's LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT; Williams'  CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF; Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?; Shepards' BURIED CHILD ; Bruce Norris' CLYDEBOURNE PARK; Jon Robin Baitz's OTHER DESERT CITIES; etc, etc. for location. In Australian terms think SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL, A HARD GOD, BIG RIVER, DON'S PARTY, ANGELA'S ASHES; THIS YEAR'S ASHES ; etc etc. A car, then, in a black void? I just don't think it has the same resonance, do you? Especially as the expression of the American or Austrlian Dream, do you?

I included the flute reference, because it is used by Miller as a re-curring sound motif throughout the play and has a significant connection to Willy's absent father, who made flutes and sold them, (the fear of children's abandonment/betrayal by fathers, is a recurring theme in Mr Stone's chosen work - Hamlet next year, I hear). That this important sound cue to the 'music' of Miller's play is not used weakens the emotional impact of the work. See where the 'Flute' is included as one of the dramatic voices of the scenes in the play and hear, imaginatively, the resonance that Mr Miller was attempting to awaken in the audience."It represents betrayal, for his father had deserted his boys, and his brother Ben had deserted Willy, going in search first of that father and then success at any price." (2). It is absent in this production and it lessens the dramatics of the play's experience, I reckon.

For me, however, the choice that diminished the experience of this play production, is, in the acting style adopted by most of the cast under the direction of Mr Stone. There are two actors, one of them being Colin Friels, who seems to have the imaginative measure and consistent focus on the 'operatic' scale of the performance requirements for this expressionistic memory play. Blazey Best, too, in smaller supporting roles, and, so, not really text time-wise, therefore, able to make a great contributing influence to the play-acting style, has the instinct and commitment to the scale of the writing.

The whole of the play is told in a 24 hour span and it is the final culminating day in the life of Willy Loman. All the voices in this play are the voice of Willy Loman as he attempts to come to terms with what he feels is a life that has failed to measure up to societal success. It comes from an" image greater than hunger or thirst, a need to leave a thumbprint somewhere on the world. A need for immortality, and by admitting it, the knowing that one has inscribed one's name on a cake of ice on a hot July day".(1). The play was originally to be called THE INSIDE OF HIS HEAD, it takes place inside Willy's head, and time and place, present and past, swirl around him in contradictory juxtapositions, arguing, accusing, confessing, admitting, blaming himself for this failure. It comes from "the endless, convoluted discussions, wonderments, arguments, belittlements, encouragements, fiery resolutions, abdications, returns, partings, voyages out and voyages back, tremendous opportunities and small, squeaking denouements - and all in the kitchen now occupied by strangers who cannot hear what the walls are saying." (1).This is what Mr Miller has put on the stage in a form that is still revolutionary today and hardly matched again in recent dramatic literature. A play acted out in the protagonists mind/head. What we come to know is that Willy's tragedy is not within himself, but, in the societal conventions and the pressures that that brings to bear on him - and instead of turning the glare of the tortured search for failure on himself,better an examination of the trigger and trajectory for the American Dream, that has the dollar bill marked with "In God We Trust", and has kept him in gauging his worth, ought to have been at the centre of his tremendous focus. The system taught to achieve the American Dream is the problem, not the individual in it.

This then is a central character not in a naturalistic or realistic state but one in a heightened analytic form of expressionism, of self-examination. While watching the famous bedroom scene between Biff (Patrick Brammall) and Happy (Hamish Michael) in act one, I observed a kind of style of acting that was, sort of, 'glib' naturalism , a kind of cinematic approach to the delivery of the scene. Casual and throw away, as in life likeness. It was as if the actors were working out their private fate through their role, and the idea of communicating the meaning of the play was the last thing that might occur to them. ("In the Actors Studio, despite denials, the actor is told that the text is really the framework for his emotions; I've heard actors change the order of lines in my work and tell me that the lines are only, so to speak, the libretto for the music—that the actor is the main force that the audience is watching and that the playwright is his servant. They are told that the analysis of the text, and the rhythm of the text, the verbal texture, is of no importance whatever."(1)). It is the championing of reducing the writer's text to the actor's life scale instead of expanding the actor's imaginative powers to the scale of the writer, the writing, the "music". It is, to my mind, the perfect indulgence of the actor as creative (emotional) narcissist by a director. This is the mode that Mr Stone has directed his actors to. His designers as well. Downscaling. This is what I detected in most of the work of the other actors. A style of performance that was at odds with what is written. If music was attached to this 'libretto', I believe, it is 'opera' and not a lesser musical form that it demands. In my estimation, this investigation, if it is a conscious one, of a contemporary acting stage style, a Belvoir consciousness, by Mr Stone, (certainly, the design experience at Belvoir seems to be conscious), it is only possible if the intentions of some of his writers are dismantled. The best thing about THE WILD DUCK was the acting - and then the original play was hardly present. The relatively poor acting in the leading role of STRANGE INTERLUDE could salvage neither the other actors or the writer,in that case, and, this is true, as well, of FACE TO FACE. It worked admirably in the new Australian work of NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH - a conventional structure and style, no matter the design and directing packaging.

Now this "Method" of acting works well in the movies, as the close-up can capture the detail of psychological gesture and storytelling, that, on stage, needs a more expansive commitment of expression - a mode that is of a more heightened and courageous scale. It is a necessity to be courageous, because most contemporary actors feel that BIG is wrong. It is wrong for them because it feels unnatural, and definitely, strange. And strange is scary. I say, "Gird your loins". Fear not failure : "We fail! But screw your courage to the sticking place, And we'll not fail." At least, if you are to fail, Fail Gloriously. For, unnatural to the inexperienced stage actor can mean untruthful. Rather the director ought to be encouraging the scale to see what happens. In the case of DEATH OF A SALESMAN what would be found, would be, from my experience of other productions of this play, the right mode of expression for the work. And, with that comes the overwhelming power of the play. Heightened truths of, at,  a magnificent scale.That power is the primal energy of the human soul, tapped by Arthur Miller, with his knowledge and admiration of the heritage of the Greek Theatre form. This is startlingly needed in the execution of DEATH OF A SALESMAN, if the true epic power of the work is too land. I will dare to say in any play of Mr Miller's, it is needed. The theatre, the stage, was his playing field. He always pushed the conventions of theatre form in every play he wrote, in the tradition of all the so-called mainstream greats of the American theatre canon : O'Neill, Williams, Albee, Shepard, Mamet, Guare. No simple naturalism there, ever. (Well, nearly).

The operatic scale, required for this work is what Mr Friels delivered every moment of his performance. In this production, Mr Friels never left the stage, he was present for all of Willy's mind's inventions, and, on observing him at the back of the stage, or, on the sides, as he witnessed Willy's imagined journey of life resolving, there was an emanation of focused storytelling energy of enormous ferocity from this Willy (Friels), that attempted to compensate, I thought, for the relatively dulled imaginings of the other actors' offers of theatrical expression. The other actors were, relatively, playing in a film life reality, and, so, perforce, despite the yearnings of Mr Friels to take the text to the stratospheric realms it requires, this Willy could only be read as a result, as a character in pathological breakdown. A man in a psychological and physical breakdown, an animal breakdown, and not in search of the existential answers, to satisfy his basic humanities, the belief that he is of worth, worthy, that he has done some good to immortalise himself - no matter the humble impact on the world stage - that his son can remember and respect him, give him honour at his  graveside. (These longings may be too altruistic for the Aussie bloke , too intellectual for the average Aussie bloke of this production? Had we best deny the scale and remove the funeral, then?)  In this production  the required energy comes from a man who is out to fight the closing 'fates' and so the first image of  Willy, is that of a snappy dresser, (costumes, Alice Babidge) an excited charmer, 'a scrapper', a cousin to Roo and Barney from the cane fields, not the defeated, weary, barely able to carry his salesman's cases, that Arthur Miller has written. A man that is about to call it quits and search painfully for the reasons for his defeat.

Arthur Miller talks of the performance of Frederick March in the first film of DEATH OF A SALESMAN (1952), and even though March was considered for the leading man in the original stage production (he turned it down) and was an actor that he admired, Miller thought that the very conventions of the naturalism of film made everything in the film to be played against 'real'/natural locations and so it became a naturalistic story reeled out in a real world instead of the psychic mental projections of a panicked man. The text had to be shifted to respectful encounters between conforming human beings in public places. So, Willy could only be viewed in this realism "as a psycho, all but completely out of control with next to no grip on reality.... it was predictable in the extreme." (3.) The dramatic tension of Willy's memories was partly demolished by the naturalistic acting of the other actors, the horror was lost- and the drama became, relatively, narrative. Though not as drastic as that performance, Mr Friels has to struggle with the naturalistic, cinematic scaled responses of the other actors in this black box space, and the stature of the dramatic dilemma in the play is undermined to a more ordinary one, no matter the fluidity of the time and place storytelling. Mr Miller was still in charge of that.

It is this lack of sophistication on the part of the other acting style and technique that dominates the production that forces an unconvincing climax to the production. "The motor that drives the play is the relationship between father and son, the need of the former to pass on his false values if he is to retain a sense of his own significance, and the need of the latter to cut himself free. Biff returns not in search of success but in an attempt to save his father's life. The problem is that if he seeks to do so by bolstering Willy's illusions he will do so at the price of his own peace of mind. For Willy to survive, his son must stay, if he is to assuage his guilt." (4). In the climatic conflict between Biff and Willy, the response of Mr Brammall, as Biff, to his dramatic opportunities was to emotionalise the text to tell us of the journey of the scene, it became a shout with no real control over the information in the lines, the speech content. The emotions flooded the text instead of the text been clearly floated by the 'objective' logic of articulating that story, and the audience were not invited to endow the scene with any cathartic input, but rather admire the emotional state of Mr Brammall's acting. This emotional lack of control, on the night I saw it, forced Mr Friels to balance it with returned noise as well, and the exquisite pain of Willy's lifetime of striving for the dignity of simply being human and loved teetered on independent manufactured moments. The scene, almost collapsed for me. The skill and the determination of Mr Friels to re-capture our belief, us as witnesses of the great ploy of the play and take us to Willy's gathering astonishment of the love that his son is revealing to him was Herculean in its finesse, and despite a wan sense of being 'tricked', 'wooed' , by the naked technique of an actor, one jumped with him into the belief of the joyful tragedy of Willy's new knowledge, that Mr Friels was showing us, that leads Willy to the heroic deed of suicide for the honour and provision of his family (much like Ibsen's Hedda's final gesture to her society) and the dignity of his memory for Biff, especially. I capitulated, in a state of awe for Mr Friels' passionate commitment to the craft of the actor, that, sometimes can create art. Rather than being in the 'subjective' catharsis of the predicament of Willy, with Mr Friels and his artistry-craft.

So, I was not moved to tears, as this play has almost always drawn from me before.This production lacked the veracity and truthfulness of the Miller scale. The Greek Theatre heritage of Miller's artistic dreaming and sweat was absent in this production. The Ibsen agenda mechanisms were diluted with under-staked objective commitments to the arguments of the play and submitting to delivering 'animal' emotional states instead. Who knows, maybe, with the epilogue and Linda's final speeches I could have had a catharsis to give me the hope for our community and surviving in our social structures, in Sydney, in 2012. Unusually, Mr Stone removed the Miller Epilogue. Unusual, because Mr Stone usually adds one, e.g. THE WILD DUCK. The gathering of the extended family around the coffin of the Belvoir image of the car seemed an opportunity strangely and willfully missed. A funeral service is still a ritual, is it not in contemporary society, in Sydney, in 2012, as it is universally, isn't it?

This was a poor textual reading of a masterpiece. The play still made its mark and for its first time viewers they may have had a great experience. Certainly, the performance of Mr Friels was one to remember. That of an actor giving his all to a great playwright whatever else was going on about him (or ,not). And, whatever else, Mr Stone has, it is theatrical chutzpah. Someone else thinks so too, four major productions in one year is a big number of bites of the small theatrical apple in this city. Others are starving and want to know, how does he do it? How does he do it?

References

  1. The Theatre Essays of ARTHUR MILLER. Edited and introduced by Robert A Martin with a new foreword by ARTHUR MILLER. METHUEN, 1999. First published in 1978, The Viking Press and Penguin Books.
  2. ARTHUR MILLER 19915-1962 by Christopher Bigsby. Weidenfeld & Nicolson - 2008.
  3. TIMEBENDS by Arthur Miller.Methuen -1987.
  4. ARTHUR MILLER AND COMPANY. Edited by Christopher Bigsby. Methuen Drama in association with THE ARTHUR MILLER CENTRE FOR AMERICAN STUDIES - 1990.
  5. ELIA KAZAN. A LIFE. PAN BOOKS - 1988.
  6. DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller -Penguin Plays - 1949 (re-published 1961).

17 comments:

Isabella Dunwill said...

Thanks KJ. I really enjoyed this article. Great that we can still learn so much from you through your blog about honouring text and language. Really appreciate you taking the time to share your informed and educated opinions.

xx

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Anonymous said...

Thanks Kevin. This was the first production of Death of a Salesman I have seen, having never read the play; and though I was stunned by the performances, I walked away thinking 'What a phenomenal play.' Not production, play. In hindsight, I am glad I saw this first, because now I know to expect much more. And, as you said, I too did not know that Willy Loman died of a car crash.

John said...

'An actor giving his all to a great playwright'...
Yes - that is the thing one will remember with affection and gratitude. That fierce, heroic, yearning energy that has characterized so many of the Colin Friels' performances.I watched him and thought of the young actor I had seen years ago on the small stage downstairs in "Traitors"; I saw brown hair and grey hair almost at once and admired the youthful energy and commitment that the actor before me was bringing to a role one couldn't have imagined- all those years ago-that he would embody.
Like everyone else on stage he spoke with an Aussie sound, but with him it didn't matter,it didn't hit moments of grating absurdity.And I think the reason is as you suggest, Kevin:it's because he relished the text ;he did not speak it as if it were a typical problem-family tv drama; he took us beyond that familiar territory to the realm of Miller's unique stage poetry.There's an awkwardness at times about those Miller phrases and images (everyone, on the count of three...SIMONIZE!) but they sound better thrust out towards us rather than submerged in a soapy blur.
I hope that Mr Friels recovers fully and fast and will delight audiences in the Theatre Royal season.
I'm sure there will be (deserved) appreciation too for the work of Blazey Best, who's got a whole other set of spark plugs away from the shiny car.
And yes, maybe for Christmas someone will have a rethink about all that shouting and about the absence of the Requiem.If they had been there for Judi Farr's graveside lament at the close of the 1982 Nimrod production, they would know how much that final scene -the expression of the enduring pain of the Loman fate -gives to our experience of the play.

James Waites said...

Kevin that is an amazing piece of writing/analysis. Sydney theatre world is in a strange place. On the surface - oh so good. Mostly due to the legion of fine actors to draw from. But who digs deeper? Only you. You know more about (let's call them) the 'original' texts that are being 'treated' than anyone else who is writing about these productions. And when you don't know the texts as well as you think you should you go off and do some homework. As a result you are the ONLY critic in Sydney qualified to evaluate this batch of extreme directorial 'treatments' of the classics we are currently living through.

It's one of the reasons I have called a halt to my own critical commentary. I would take the generalised view that a director can do whatever they like with a text, so long as it works - meaning that it works better in our time then the version the playwright had in mind. What's happening here in Sydney at the moment is that too few among the public - including the other reviewers (and I include myself in that group) know what we are missing. Meaning we are not placed to play an active role in any critical commentary because we lack the intellectual tools to do so. Kevin, you have a very good memory, you are extremely observant, diligent - and you understand the potency - the cultural value - of good criticism.

It's lucky you are here to alert us to what we are not noticing. I've seen Death of a Salesman before - and there is a modern screen version that is set in a house without walls - a very 'theatrical' setting. But my memory is so poor, I had no idea watching the Belvoir production that the ending had been changed. The way you argue your case suggests this 'new' version of the text has - by close of play - lost more than it has gained. The problem lies not only in what the directors are doing to these great texts, but that there are not enough reviewers around with the wherewithal to studiously pursue a cultivated debate. The critics who are being paid don't have the space to enter into deep analysis. And volunteers like me don't have the time (meaning) money to do so.

James Waites said...


I want to mention one changed ending since this seems to be where these contemporary readings are most exposed. The German filmmaker Fassbinder loved to provoke - he hated tidy endings - closure. He saw that as homaging the values of the middle class - the status quo. This is about his film of of A Doll's House - a play that most of his audience would have known (and - most importantly, if not, his controversial ending would still have worked). When the play first premiered in 1879, Nora's departure from the home leaving husband and children to fend for themselves caused outrage. When we see the play now we are on Nora's side - yes it's right for her to get the heck out of that domestic prison. Husband can pick up the pieces.

So what Fassbinder did in his 1973 film called Nora Helmer (A Doll's House), which was shot in a manner that looked like a theatrical staging, he had Nora leave at the end. Pause. Then change her mind - and return to the family home. It was so so obviously the wrong ending whether you new Ibsen's original ending or not. Such were the cultural values in Germany in relation to women's rights in 1973, Fassbinder's ending created a similar outrage.

That was his goal. What it did was send audiences out into the streets, into cafes and bars to argue, discuss, debate. No Hollywood closure - you had to get together with your friends and enemies and work out the meaning/significance of the new ending.

Chris Hardy said...

Kevin, like you, it was the first tearless Death of a Salesman that I have ever experienced. The performances were all sound but poorly directed (far too much shouting and far too often we couldn’t see their faces). The design was a stupendous mistake – a strikingly original idea that needed to be thrown out, not made the cornerstone of the production. Why would anyone/How could anyone cut the epilogue when it contains those wonderful lines of Linda’s (that you quoted) and also the summations of Charlie, Biff and Happy (“Nobody dast blame this man”; “the man never knew who he was”; “He had a good dream”)? The replacement of the Dictaphone with an ipad was emblematic of the approach: clever, tricksy, distracting, disrespectful and ultimately unsatisfying. The power of the play and the performances shone through and all the kids I took thought it was great but I feel as though they’ve missed out.

5thwall said...

thanks for finally getting around to posting this! I did not see the production but the insights are terrific.

James - thanks also for commenting. "the critics who are paid" ... Laugh Out Loud. All three of them?

They are at the behest of editors who are at the behest of advertisers. "The critics who are paid" receive complimentary tickets and drinks and are schmoozed at every turn by publicists and actors alike. Just look on twitter if you need evidence, it's hilarious! like a massive trough...

It is absolutely not in their interest to start actual clinical dissections of theatre technique in the interests of bettering the wider cultural appreciation of creative work. Naturally the more in depth discussions worth reading are happening on blogs such as this.

This is why major companies will continue to refuse to recognise the blogosphere's relevance and import. Since it's their audience - ignore us at your peril!

thanks again
sancz

John Leary said...

Before I begin, I should declare an interest. I am friends with the majority of the cast and creatives of this production. Most notably Patrick Brammall, with whom I've written and acted in numerous productions.

When I learnt of Simon Stone's intention to direct Death of a Salesman, and knowing that he was dedicated to doing it in his - fast becoming - trademark style, I was aghast. How could he even contemplate doing such an outstanding classic, so anchored in time and space, without the accents and without the house and yard? We went toe-to-toe in an argument over this and I came away still convinced that I was right. I argued that the Sydney audiences are surely sophisticated enough to identify the similarities between "The American Dream" and "The Australian Dream" without having to hear those words in our accent. That, in fact, a play (any play - but especially a Great one) being set in a different time and place to our own brings into sharper focus the similarities rather than the differences. Shakespeare knew this. Miller, himself knew this! I was concerned that the Glass Box style would remove the audience from the experience and rob this masterpiece of its heart. After seeing Strange Interlude, I was further convinced that I was right.

But how wrong I was!

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of seeing what I can confidently say was a VERY traditional production of Death of a Salesman in New York, starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and directed by Mike Nichols. Everything, right down to using the original set (designed by Jo Mielziner - who died in 1976) was as true to Miller's perceived intention as possible. It could almost be called a revival of the original production. It was the first production of the play that I had seen - having fallen in love with the text while in high school. True, Phillip Seymour Hoffman was an amazing Willy. He managed to make utterly convincing the flips between dreamt recollections and the lucid present. He was powerful and blustering but also vulnerable and beaten. He is without doubt, one of the finest actors I've had the pleasure of seeing on stage. Linda Emond as Linda was also something of a revelation. Her performance showed me how narrow my idea of the play actually was. It is her story as much as Willy's or Biff's. Andrew Garfield as Biff was less enthralling, but still a solid portrayal. But for all that, it left me with barely a lump in the throat. I connected… but hardly. To me, it was a museum piece. Quaint. And very, very beige - like stumbling across an old photo album full of pictures of your grandparents. You recognise them, even identify with them, but they don't really speak to you or provide any insight into your own world.

Then I saw the Belvoir production.

John Leary said...

I was an emotional mess afterwards. I cried uncontrollably. I believe that this production captured precisely the feeling of it all happening inside Willy's head - moments before he ends his life. It's called Death of a Salesman. We know where it's all heading. The how - driving off at a suicidal rate or gassing himself in his car - is beside the point. That may seem glib or irreverent, but I think it's true. It's the why that is important. The same goes for the decision to dispense with the framework-house. Granted, paying off the house and being "free and clear" is one of the driving forces behind what Willy does, but does that mean we have to see it? There's plenty in the play that we don't see. It seems to me that Miller's description of the setting at the top of the text is simply describing the set as it was in its original production - and that's fine - but if every production has to adhere to that, then I hope the estate of Jo Mielziner is getting its cut. Somehow I don't think so. It's not until the stage directions in parentheses that he describes any action. As you say, Miller wrote the play envisaging three separate platforms, which can represent the house, certainly, but which could also represent all manner of spaces. Which becomes quite useful with a play where the action takes place in multiple locations. If anything, the set upon which the New York production was played was extremely limited in its usefulness. Apart from the early scenes in the bedrooms, the set upstage of the kitchen was barely used and all the scenes set away from the house were played down on the apron on a blank floor not too dissimilar from Belvoir's. It seems to me that giving us the car is far more symbolic of the life Willy actually had - constantly on the road, absent from the family that he had such hopes for - and there is a sense that the whole thing is an imagined experience of Willy's as he sits in his car on the side of some nameless highway contemplating his life (and death).

I put it to you, that it was more a case of personal preference in terms of staging and style that had you dissatisfied with Belvoir's production. That you feel that there is a "correct" interpretation of this play that Simon Stone failed to deliver. But that way lies stagnation. As an actor, I relish the times I'm able to portray characters from vastly different worlds than mine. I want to have to do accents. I want to wear wigs and costumes and be other people from other times. I adore theatre which shows me a different way of life and I have been confounded recently by shows that have been dragged into the here and now. But I was far more moved and identified with the plight of the characters in Belvoir's production far more than I did the Broadway production.

More than anything though, the thing that let me enter the theatre free of the expectation of a "classic" interpretation of Death of a Salesman comes from the author himself. He writes that "the action takes place in Willy Loman's house and yard and in various places he visits in the New York and Boston of today." It is that final word, "today" that liberates the text from the stuffy confines of doing it in period. And I believe that it's a conscious decision of Miller's to write that. He could easily have chosen to write instead that the action takes place on the 8th of April, 1949, or whatever he liked. But he didn't. He chose "today" because he knew that what is current now in the lives of human beings, is, was, and always will be. Yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Kevin Jackson said...

Dear John, Thanks for writing in such detail. I envy your seeing the New York production that went on to win the TONY for Best Play Revival this year, I think. The last time they did it , it also won again. Says something of the power of the play, does it not, even without adaptation?

Yes, I guess, though, that all of us respond uniquely to a text, a production etc. There are as many truthful satisfactions or dissatisfactions as there are individuals. The Rashomon affect!

However, I do not believe that there can ever be a 'correct' version or a 'right' or 'wrong' one. What I do feel strongly, is that Simon Stone did not deliver Arthur Miller's play because of the textual excisions and liberties that he took and thus altering the scheme of the play.
Keith Gallasch's review in the latest in REAL TIME seems to me a very good capture of I what I feel. That Simon was acting as an author (auteur) of the material with his own personal commentary over riding Mr Miller's.
It is certainly a timeless play, Yesterday, today and tomorrow, and may not need the time capsule change at all to have great impact.

Kevin J.

Anonymous said...

Great article which I believe reflects what many in the theatregoing community (the silent majority?) really feel. You bring up the issue of Bell Shakespeare’s greatly reduced version of “The Duchess of Malfi”; I remember reading with interest an interview with John Bell in which he cited as his reasons not “Australianising”, “making it relevant” or “artistic vision”, but simply a lack of resources to stage the work as originally written. He claimed he would need a much bigger cast which he couldn’t afford to muster for a play which would probably not generate the box-office to justify it. You could argue that rather than produce a scaled-down version, he should have abandoned the project completely; but I really admire him for his honesty and candour. If only more theatre practitioners would follow his example and not keep waffling on about their unique takes on great works.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article Kevin. I am sure that Simon Stone is a talented director in many respects. But I think his ego is bigger than his talent, and that is a great shame. I think his relative youth is also a problem when directing certain classics. He has not yet lived the life of so many of the characters he chooses to alter. He isn't (as far as I know) a father. He therefore doesn't see the major importance (and inherent tragedy) of men who run their cars off the road and into trees, so that their families might be taken care of after their death. Loman's wife's lines about having made the final mortgage repayment are significant and extraordinarily moving, because we see a set of parents, who, like most parents, devote the bulk of their very existence to the life, well-being and future of their children,
I think Simon Stone shows all the arrogance of youth, as did many of us when we were young. However, most of us didn't erase all the elements of classic plays simply because they didn't relate to us. I found his Ravenskaya in The Cherry Orchard, a totally narcissistic character, whom I could not have cared less about. Yes, Ravenskaya does have some narcissistic traits, but it's her overwhelming generosity that makes her endearing, and the loss of her child that makes her tragic. All this seemed to be glossed over in favour of some parody of a once rich Australian ex-hippy. So what?
I had seen the Andre Upton translation of The Cherry Orchard in London earlier and was moved to tears.
Whatever Simon Stone does with the classics, and no doubt some of what he does is very clever, nevertheless removes the heart out of these masterpieces, and in doing so, robs these plays of their most important and profound moments and insights.