Theatre Review: DEATH OF A SALESMAN – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Don Warrington (Willy) and Maureen Beattie (Linda) in DEATH OF A SALESMAN.

Don Warrington (Willy) and Maureen Beattie (Linda) in DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Sarah Frankcom’s production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN is a multi-layered and fascinating reframing of an American classic

Following his critically acclaimed performance in KING LEAR, Don Warrington makes a welcome return to the Royal Exchange to take on Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play DEATH OF A SALESMAN.

Set in late 1940s America, DEATH OF A SALESMAN follows Willy Loman (Warrington), a 60-year-old travelling salesman who has deluded himself all his life about being a big success in the business world. Told through a montage of memories, dreams, confrontations and arguments, the play follows the final 24 hours of his life as he relives key events of the past, often confusing them with what is happening in the present. His two sons, Biff and Happy, who are in their 30s, are also failures like their father, idolizing their father in their youth and despising him in the present.

Played out against Leslie Travers’ bleak yet inventive set, Willy’s deteriorating mental health is very much the focus of Sarah Frankcom’s production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Demonstrating his alternating psychological states with fluid ease, Frankcom deals with the complex transitions between the past and the present well here, making the most of the Royal Exchange’s intimate in-the-round setting to create a claustrophobic and hostile environment which the characters can’t escape.

Ashley Zhangazha (Biff) and Buom Tihngang (Happy) in DEATH OF A SALESMAN.

Ashley Zhangazha (Biff) and Buom Tihngang (Happy) in DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Jack Knowles’s lighting design creates some lovely moments of warmth, lighting up the canopy of inverted trees which hang above the stage, heightening the dream-like qualities of the play as the internal and external worlds become more blurred. The casting also provides a new lens through which to view the play by presenting the Lomans as African-Americans, offering a new exploration of race and social mobility in America.

As Willy, Don Warrington delivers a perfectly nuanced performance, wearing the character’s pain from the outset as he fights to keep putting one foot in front of the other. With his hoarse voice and slumped shoulders, Warrington plays Willy as broken and exhausted, his physicality demonstrating a man who simply doesn’t understand why things have not turned out the way he planned and tells himself almost any lie to ease the pain.

The supporting cast is equally strong, sitting around the edges of the set when not on stage, watching and haunting Willy as his life – and sanity – slowly begins to unravel. Ashley Zhangazha is particularly excellent as Willy’s older son Biff, delivering a wholly believable and emotionally effective performance. Buom Tihngang as equally strong as his younger brother Happy while Maureen Beattie’s is fiercely protective as Linda.

Ashley Zhangazha (Biff) and Don Warrington (Willy) in DEATH OF A SALESMAN.

Ashley Zhangazha (Biff) and Don Warrington (Willy) in DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Photo Credit: Johan Persson

At just over three hours long (including a 20-minute interval), the tension becomes increasingly hard to sustain as this lengthy play develops and the lack of any positive character traits in the Loman family make the characters a little difficult to like at times.

That said, Frankcom does an excellent job in making the play feel contemporary. Loman’s fears are universal and the play’s commentary on capitalism still feels relevant to a contemporary audience, almost 70 years after it made its debut.

All in all, this a multi-layered and fascinating reframing of an American classic and an engaging adaption of one of what is considered one of the best dramas of the 20th century.

(4 / 5)

DEATH OF A SALESMAN runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 17 November 2018

Donna is the Editor of Frankly, My Dear UK. By day, she is a digital marketing whizz, by night she reviews film, theatre and music for a wide range of publications including WhatsonStage, The Public Reviews and ScreenRelish. Loves Shakespeare, prosecco and Formula 1