Chapel Off Chapel
Presented by Hearth Theatre
Until 11 June
By Alex First
Almost three quarters of a century after it was written, the power, passion and desolation intrinsic to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) remains intact.
It is a devastating and iconic piece of work, magnificently performed by the 11-strong cast from Hearth Theatre at Chapel Off Chapel.
The three-hour production explores themes of change, isolation, depression, self-worth, family values, truth and financial distress.
The action takes place in 1940s New York.
When still in his mid-teens Willy Loman (Paul English) started out as a salesman.
At age 63, he remains on the road, covering thousands upon thousands of kilometres. His territory is New England.
He is tired and washed up.
Willy was once the pride of his company, feted by the current owner Howard Wagner’s (Sorab Kaikobad) father Frank, who has since passed.
Now working only on commission and seen by Howard as a liability, Willy doesn’t make enough to cover the household expenses.
In fact, he has to turn to his neighbour Charley (Joe Petruzzi) for regular handouts, to pay his way.
Willy’s wife Linda (Margot Knight) loves him dearly, despite his grumbles and worries.
Of late, Willy’s mind also appears to be going.
Not aware of his lack of standing with his boss, Linda urges Willy to ask Howard for an office job to lighten his load.
She and Willy have two adult children who are temporarily staying with them, sharing their old room.
Willy bemoans the fact that the elder, Biff (Charlie Cousins), has made nothing of himself.
He is but a transient farm hand, earning little money, when his destiny could have been so different.
As a teenager, Biff was a football star, destined for a college scholarship until he flunked maths.
Then, his life started to unravel and he fell out with Willy, whom he still loves, but whenever they talk they end up locking horns.
Willy’s younger son “Happy” (Ross Dwyer) is a womaniser and a big talker, who has his eyes on a more prestigious job than he currently has.
Truth be told, despite pumping himself up, he is an assistant to the assistant buyer of a local store.
Happy would love to go into business with his brother and they come up with a plan, with Biff determined to approach a former employer for funding.
As Willy’s mental state continues to deteriorate, he has increasing visions of his older brother Ben (Andrew Blackman). The latter made a fortune in Africa by the time he was 21.
Friendless and losing all hope, Willy’s final blow comes at Howard’s hands, while the reception Biff receives from his former employer is equally shattering.
Hearth Theatre’s portrayal of broken dreams and spirit is every bit as powerful as the story suggests it should be.
The stunning, Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning work remains heartbreaking to watch.
Thematically, the subject matter is as relevant today as when it was first realised.
The shifts in society since the play’s inception have been significant.
Disconnectedness and health and well-being are certainly more spoken about, but it’s arguable how much progress has actually been made. Many continue to slip through the cracks.
A dominant figure throughout, in a bravura showing, Paul English wears his heart on his sleeve, laying bare Willy’s vulnerabilities.
Biff is a chip off the old block. Charlie Cousins readily channels his character’s crash and burn persona. Perpetually out to please his father, Biff inevitably fails.
Margot Knight is impressive as Linda, Willy’s indefatigable and empathetic wife and greatest defender.
Ross Dwyer makes a good fist of it, too, as the over exuberant Happy, a man prone to hyperbole.
Backed by a strong supporting cast, Death of a Salesman remains a searing portrait of struggle.
Set and costume designer Adrienne Chisholm shows her creativity in the play’s staging.
As we enter the theatre, dried leaves are liberally scattered on the floor and atop weathered heavy duty sheets that cover ageing furnishings.
Well-dressed but weary Willy Loman enters, a suitcase in each hand. It is only then that the floor is partially swept and the sheets are lifted by other cast members.
It is an effective, evocative device.
Fine direction from Christopher Tomkinson ensures Death of a Salesman remains a highly impactful theatrical experience.
It may be a journey well-travelled, but it is definitely one worth taking from an audience perspective. Death of a Salesman is playing at Chapel Off Chapel until 11th June, 2023.
About the Author
Alex First believes all people have a story to tell, if only a good playwright can prize it out of them. Alex has a natural curiosity about the world and believes a strong narrative, or narrative with music, can open the door to subjects about which he knows little.
Like his parents before him, theatre is his passion – a passion with emotional resonance, one that moves and excites him. He brings decades’ experience as an arts’ connoisseur to his role as a critic.
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