By Jessica Taurins
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is touted as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, and thankfully the 2023 Melbourne production entirely lives up to such a grandiose descriptor.
Written in 1949, Miller wrote his two act play about his uncle – a salesman at the end of his rope, desperate to build a life for his two sons, eventually dying in a similar fashion to the play’s main character William “Willy” Loman. Miller developed his characters as reflections of both those he knew and himself, using his own experiences to craft the character of Bernard. The purest form of humanity behind each of the characters has ensured the longevity of Death of a Salesman’s relevance, and even today, 74 years later, audiences can still relate to the show and its tragic end.
Willy Loman (Anthony LaPaglia) is a beleaguered and exhausted salesman trying to stay relevant in an age where his personality is no longer enough of a selling point to keep him in business. As the breadwinner, he lies to his wife about the money he makes – borrowing it from a friend to ensure the bills are paid – and instead of taking another job he grinds himself to the bone trying to make it in the only world he’s familiar with: sales. The mortgage is one payment from being completed, but the bills are piling up, the insurance payments are due, and the rented whitegoods continue to fail one by one before the payment plans are completed.
Willy represents the global workforce, crumbling in the grip of almighty capitalism with the hopes of a comfortable place to live and a wage to feed a family. Willy’s loyalty to his workplace is unrewarded and his pay is never enough – even at the height of his earnings he was still outpaced by his peers and his brother who seemed to fall into better opportunities so easily. It’s hard to feel any difference between Willy’s time and ours, with skyrocketing rents and grocery costs looming above us, while all people want is a little space for themselves and a drop of pleasure in their lives.
As Willy, LaPaglia is stunning beyond words. Most well-known for his filmed performances rather than on the boards, LaPaglia is still capable of owning every inch of the stage and commanding every eye to him with a single word. His physicality waxes and wanes throughout the show as the scenes shift from his past – where he remains strong, capable, full of bravado – and his present – where he shrinks, wandering and muttering to himself, losing his way in a world which has outgrown him.
Willy’s story is heartbreaking in so many ways. He is somehow both the tragic figure and the figure causing tragedy as he builds and destroys relationships in an instant. LaPaglia skillfully and carefully toes the painful line between smug self-belief and absolute devastation in a way where it can be easy to forget he’s only acting, and it is a true delight to see.
Linda Loman (Alison Whyte) struggles seeing her husband collapse from the outside in, and is keenly aware of Willy’s imminent death before perhaps even Willy is. Whyte’s performance is captivating and deeply personal, a woman taking care of a man as could only be done back in those days – like removing his slippers for him – yet knowing that without her to catch him, he would surely fall too far. Whyte has more moments of heartache than the others in the show, but the strength of her character stands up well against LaPaglia’s imposing performance.
Josh Helman and Sean Keenan as Willy’s children, Biff and Happy Loman, are wonderful foils to LaPaglia’s performance. Happy is everything his father expects – and perhaps more, in his womanising – yet struggles to gain Willy’s approval. Biff is nothing his father wants him to be, yet is happier than anyone around because of his decision to take on manual field work. Helman is a standout, not only does he look the part of an American footballer, but he plays his emotions plainly and beautifully as he works through the struggles he experiences in Biff’s life.
Of the supporting cast, Tom Stokes and Steve Bastoni are standouts. Bastoni plays Charley, Willy’s neighbour and perhaps only friend, and radiates compassion for the stubborn Willy. Stokes plays Bernard, the character Arthur Miller based on himself. Bernard is initially a young boy in flashbacks, eagerly traversing the stage to catch Biff and study with him. Back in the present, and not too long before the show’s end, Stokes has the chance to shine as a senior lawyer giving advice to Willy. Stokes’ performance is that of an old soul, calm, compassionate, and a beautiful contrast to LaPaglia’s anxiety and anger.
Dale Ferguson’s set design – the bleachers at a baseball field – allows for easy transitions between past and present. The characters are all onstage at almost all times, waiting for their moment in Willy’s life to present itself. They act as the chorus and Willy’s judges all in one, eagerly watching him as he navigates the positions he finds himself in over time. In addition, Sophie Woodward’s costumes are well-designed to signal the differing time periods, and Niklas Pajanti’s lightning design excellently helps to differentiate moments of the body and moments of the spirit.
The show end as expected, with the final death of the salesman. But it could be considered that WIlly had died at any other point during the show. Does his death come when he loses his job? When he loses a relationship? When he realises that his buyers don’t love him as they used to? The slow, drawn out death of the salesman is not the peak of his life, but a trough left in the lives of the others around him. The bills are paid and the home is owned, but at what cost?