REVIEW: Death Of A Salesman | Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney

Colin Friels in Death Of A Salesman | Belvoir St Theatre

Simon Stone, despite his celebrity and meteoric rise to prominence, is still a director in short pants. That’s good. And not so good. Like any good creative artist, he’s not so well-informed as to let facts or knowledge get in the way of making it up as he goes along. And he’s certainly got the smarts to do just that, better than most. That’s why he’s resident director at Belvoir, I surmise.

There can be no doubt about it, attempting Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer-winning piece de resistance from 1949, Death Of A Salesman, is a brave choice. Old play. Young director. When I say old, I know what you’re thinking. Shakespeare is old. But Shakespeare is so old as to be new again. Whereas Death is so firmly rooted in the sandy soil of The American Dream and the home of such and way was touted, worldwide, as a golden age for America and Americans, catapulting it into the present and Australia is an ask. Yet Stone has succeeded. And failed. But, mostly, succeeded.

There is nothing on stage. Except actors. And a “late model” white Ford Falcon. That’s the only semblance of a set. The only prop. (Well, OK, there’s an iPad that stands in for a Dictaphone, which gets a cheap laugh.) The actors speak as Aussies. These are quite radical steps. Compare and contrast with the contradictory, pedantic fidelity Stone accords the script. Then again, what screw-loose, hubristic knucklehead would dare to tamper with Miller?

So, from scene one, or even before it, we have to make allowances. And quantum leaps. Stone flatters us, almost cajoling with his directorial decisions, coaching ‘go on, you can do it!’ So it’s we, the audience, that’s left to do the translation and adaptation. On the run. While we’re watching. I admire this, even while, in practical terms, having it threaten my application to the task at hand. It’s a minor mindfuck to picture Yonkers, while hearing Yagoona; Brooklyn, while hearing Balmain. And I’m not sure one quite gets past that problem. A symbol might’ve helped.

And this is where I reckon the thinking behind the production approach is a little cloudy. The sparsity of the set is a winner. As I’m fond of exalting in such tending towards blackbox circumstances, it pushes the impetus onto the page and performers. With such a great play, that’s, of course, where the emphasis should be. Keep the Aussie accents. But why not a Studebaker, or a Chevrolet? Either would’ve served to the us into the milieu: temporally, geographically, socially,  economically, politically and culturally. To my mind, this would’ve made the balance right and an audience less prone to being distracted by things that don’t matter.

What matters here are Miller’s big, bold, broad brushstrokes, concealed in dialogue; albeit some of the best dialogue ever written. Those big, bold, broad brushstrokes were and still hold up as utterly fearless. Miller was getting stuck into the very premise, the foundation stone, the social contract upon which America was fashioned and built. Miller was putting the boot into his own country at a time when it was downright dangerous to do so. (Of course, he saved The Crucible as a thinly-veiled allegory for McCarthy’s witch-hunting.) The American Dream was exposed as The American Nightmare, or The Great Big American Lie, as it applied to most people.

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Categories: Plays, Sydney

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