Death of a Salesman review (QPAC Playhouse, Brisbane)

When a theatre company takes on one of the seminal plays of the 20th century, there’s a lot of expectation. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, about the death of the American dream after the post-World War II optimism, has been performed many times with acting luminaries such as Dustin Hoffman and Philip Seymour Hoffman taking on the challenging titular role.

Even if you know nothing about the play, the title is part of the culture’s lexicon, and it’s no small thing that Queensland Theatre chose to present it exactly 70 years after its Broadway debut. It’s almost asinine to question if the material is as resonant in the year 2019 as it was in 1949. Hell, yeah!

This Queensland Theatre production, respectfully directed by Jason Klarwein (Much Ado About Nothing, St Mary’s in Exile), is powerful and affecting, with Peter Kowitz as Willy Loman, Angie Milliken as his devoted and forgiving wife, Linda, and Thomas Larkin as son Biff all more than up to their tasks of encapsulating such iconic and complex characters. It would be a hard-hearted person who wasn’t moved in a couple of the play’s more gut-wrenching moments. At its essence, it’s just so very sad.

Death of a Salesman is a wonderful vehicle for not only the actors and director, but as this production shows for the set designer (Richard Roberts) and costumer designer (Anthony Spinaze). The imposing set of the two-storey Loman household takes up the whole stage and is used to great effect throughout, keeping the focus on the internal and familial world of Willy, even as he also plays out scenes in his mind that haunt him of what happened in a hotel room on one of his sales trips years earlier. The male characters in particular look very dapper in their knitted vests and plus-fours of the 1940s era.

Willy wants to be liked. And with contemporary social media fetishising over the word ‘like’, it’s an aspect of the play which shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same. At one point, Willy comments that a colleague is liked but he’s not “well liked” – that pinnacle of achievement for a man. He laments that the elderly salesman who initially inspired him to take up the life of a travelling salesman had so many friends in various parts of the country and could make sales and connections wherever he went. Not so now for Willy who’s in the waning part of his working life and can hardly make ends meet despite working like a dog. He never thought he’d be where he is at this age and wonders what it was all for. 

The multi award-winning Peter Kowitz, who’s made a name for himself on TV shows such as Janet King and City Homicide, as well as numerous theatre works, returns to his home state of Queensland for this triumphant performance. He’s never less than commanding when he’s on stage, which is most of the time, and we sense his disappointment and despair as it oozes out of every part of him. 

Angie Milliken is both delightful and heartbreaking as Linda, a woman who loves having her three men under the one roof again after the return of Biff and the continual presence of his womanising brother, Happy (Jackson McGovern, who also makes the switch skilfully to play Willy’s boss, Howard). She can’t get over how wonderful it is that the house smells of shaving cream. Milliken gets the balance right of a seemingly simple and naïve woman who religiously mends her stockings to save money and defends her husband against his sons’ criticism, while also possessing the wiles of someone who’s not blind to Willy’s faults. She’s a joy to watch. 

Biff as played by Larkin almost steals the show in a few scenes. There’s a good reason, revealed late in the piece but which we guess long before then, about why Biff looks upon his father with disdain much of the time. Willy seems convinced that the former sports star’s constant failure in life at anything he attempts is his way to get back at him. But in a powerfully emotional scene, Biff confesses that while that might’ve been the case initially, it’s not anymore. He just can’t help it. It’s a special moment where you can sense that lumps are collecting in throats across the audience.

The supporting actors are all fine in their roles, with Charles Allen as neighbour Charley who does his best to help Willy, and Ilai Swindells as both his son Bernard and Stanley a rising talent to watch out for. Kevin Hides as Willy’s absent brother, Uncle Ben, Sarah Ogden as The Woman and Miss Forsythe, and Gemma Willing as Jenny/Letta also aquit themselves well. Several of them have to master different accents and portray characters of varying ages in different time periods, and it’s all pretty seamless.

Death of a Salesman shows the human need to feel special and appreciated. It illuminates how in the backdrop of capitalism where everything and everyone has some kind of monetary value that feeling worthless and past your usefulness is devastating. As the world changes and established paradigms are being rent apart in a mood of uncertainty and fear, the play is truly as relevant in 2019 as it was when the prophetic Miller penned it. 

At QPAC Playhouse, Brisbane until March 2

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