Death of a Salesman (Black Swan State Theatre Company, State Theatre Centre, May 4, 2013)

(Bernard) Sometimes a man has to walk away.

(Willy) What if he can’t walk away?

(Bernard) I guess then it’s tough.

Josh McConville, John Stanton. Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh

Biff (Josh McConville) and Willy (John Stanton) in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh

On Saturday night, May 4, director Adam Mitchell emerged rather apologetically to warn the preview show was “part of our rehearsal process” … but after feedback, would hopefully “really sing”.

Sing it does already.

John Stanton is utterly convincing as Willy Loman, the debt-laden salesman who never made his fortune; whose two sons are not following in his footsteps, or anyone’s; and whose mind is retreating, rather than face such truths.

His wife Linda (Caroline McKenzie) is ageing disgracefully and barely allowed to finish a sentence by the menfolk. Her hair greys, her stockings ladder, are mended and then ladder again. Her bathrobe is perpetual.

Anyone who has ever confronted their parents’ increasing fragility and confusion will see uncomfortable truths in the portrayal of this couple, aware of their children’s faults, but wilfully blind to their limitations.

Biff (Josh McConville) and Happy (Ben O’Toole) show their desperate frustration with their parents, but are themselves infuriating. It is hard to feel for them, and they show similar confusion about themselves.

(Happy) You’re a poet, you’re an idealist.

(Biff) No – I’m mixed up.

It is hard to lay the blame for the events that follow at the feet of any one. All seem at times to teeter on the brink of salvation, but all betray themselves – the boys by apathy, and Willy by pride.

(Linda) You have enough to be happy, right here, right now. Why must everybody conquer the world?

Linda finally learns to stand up for herself as well as for Willy, but wins no reward.

I overheard some muttering in the interval about accents. I am no authority on the subject and found them all adequate, but will say it seemed to me that Stanton’s was the only one that to me rang authoritatively enough to conjure a real sense of place and time. Moreover, throughout I had some trouble picking up every bit of the dialogue, which in some bits seemed a touch indistinct.

I confess to wondering, pre-interval, why anyone puts themselves through something so undeniably miserable as this story, knowing  how it ends.

I concluded in the second half that this is precisely the difference between a sob story and art. You can’t tear yourself away from truly great writing.

For that matter, great writing can only “sing” if it is as skilfully performed and compellingly staged as this is, with its flashbacks so enmeshed with the “present” that the whole mess represents Willy’s mind, trapped by its long-held beliefs and desires.

(Willy)  Never leave a job til it’s finished, remember that.

(Willy) A man can’t go out the way he came in. A man’s got to add up to something.

The story enthrals as its awful implications reveal themselves, and even the shadow cast by an industrial fan on to the stage seems menacing.

The sets of The White Divers of Broome with its eerie lighting and The Importance of being Earnest with its the extravagant flower-wall (the last two Black Swan shows I saw) impressed me with their simplicity and beauty, and the staging of this show is no different.

Caroline McKenzie as Linda and John Stanton as Willy in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh.

Linda (Caroline McKenzie) and Willy in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh.

You aren’t shown a view from Willy and Linda’s window, but you watch them look outside and clearly see what they do – an urban jungle, slowly encroaching on their American dream.

I’ve got to get some seeds. I’ve got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.

A lonely fridge sits reproachfully in a corner, a reminder that it has broken before it has been paid off. Like the fridge, Willy and Linda are so close to paying off the mortgage and owning their home, but see their lives broken anyway as Willy’s tortured mind gets the better of him.

0235 Caroline McKenzie, Igor Sas, Josh McConville, Ben O'Toole, Eden Falk. Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh

Linda, Charley (Igor Sas), Biff, Happy (Ben O’Toole) and Bernard (Eden Falk) in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh

Needless to say, my face was all crumpled and salty by the time the play reached its harrowing end.

I saw many a similar countenance on the way to the Ladies’, where we all gave each other smiles that at once acknowledged how silly we were, but also how right we were to be hurt.

(Linda) I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.

Black Swan, we’re paying attention. As my mate Sturdy put it: “I can’t believe how marvelously depressing that was.”

Death of a Salesman runs until May 19.