I last saw Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in a Nimrod Theatre production in Sydney in 1982, with English star Warren Mitchell (direct from the National Theatre) as the titular salesman, Willy Loman, and two young Australian actors, Mel Gibson and Wayne Jarratt, as his sons, Biff and Happy. Judi Farr played Loman’s wife, Linda.
I was 18 at the time and electrified by the show, especially Gibson’s muscular performance. Sure, mad Mel had made Mad Max by then, but he was still five years away from the Lethal Weapon franchise that would turn him into a Hollywood superstar.
When I heard Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre was to stage Salesman, 30 years on, I had a fantastic idea: cast Gibson in the lead. Who better to play a man disillusioned by the American dream? And as for the Jewish question, well, whether Loman is or isn’t is a matter of unresolved debate.
Gibson as Loman would have been a natural segue from the star’s recent role as a suicidal American CEO in the Jodie Foster film The Beaver. Both The Beaver and Salesman are about the casual inhumanity of the material world. It’s off point, but Gibson should have won an Oscar for that performance.
What a thing that would have been: a generation after he played Biff, who is more his father’s son than he cares to admit, Gibson, a religious-minded man, ascends to the role of his creator. They would have been queuing around the block for tickets.
It was not to be. And what we have instead is magnificent: Gibson’s contemporary, Colin Friels, as Willy Loman, the role he was born to play. (And I’m just going to put this out there: Friels, 59, has overtaken Gibson, 56, in the weathered good looks stakes, perhaps because he has spent less time in jail.)
Loman is an angry man, and so is Friels — but to ascribe the actor’s brilliance in this role to that shared, and common, condition would be to do him a disservice. Friels has never lived in the shadow of his more famous wife, the Oscar-nominated actress Judy Davis, but it’s fair to say he has been made to suffer comparisons with her. In recent years, in films such as the outstanding Tom White (2004), about a successful architect who becomes homeless, he has staked a claim to being the Willy Loman of our time.
Friels, who is never off stage in Simon Stone’s new Belvoir production, commands from the start, from Loman’s first, prophetic words, spoken to poor Linda (Genevieve Lemon): ‘It’s all right. I came back.’ From that moment, we know we are with a man to be reckoned with, a man full of self-belief and achingly aware how fragile is that shell, easily pierced by others, especially those closest to you.
Stone has made a few bold decisions in the staging of Miller’s 1949 masterpiece. The set is sparse, with Friels and the car he dies in (no spoiler alerts here: please check the title) the only permanent fixtures. More dramatically, he moves the setting from post-war America to the more or less present day and he doesn’t ask the actors to adopt American accents.
Now, there is nothing wrong with this per se. Salesman is about the souring of the capitalist project, at least as it applies to its less important participants, and that is relevant in the downsizing culture of 2012 Australia, and elsewhere. Surely someone is working on a Greek version as we speak, a high tragedy.
But this viewer did have to make an effort to overcome hearing ‘Yonkers’, for example, enunciated in the laconic Australian register, as though the very name of the place was a joke. I couldn’t help but wonder how we’d feel if David Williamson’s The Removalists was performed in Brooklyn and Willem Dafoe, say, pronounced ‘Carlton’ in a broad American accent.
But overcome it I did, because it’s a temporary irritation. By the powerful second half of the play, when specific geography gives way to common humanity, we are so hooked on Friel’s piano wire-tight performance and Stone’s hallucinatory use of flashbacks that we can almost deny we know how the story has to end.
I’ve raved about Friels, and I’ll continue to do so. He is in the first rank of actors anywhere. In this production he is more than ably supported. Patrick Brammall as Biff and Hamish Michael as Hap intuitively understand the weight of their roles. They are reflections of Willy, and they know that even the distorting mirrors of a carnival sideshow need flesh and blood people to stand in front of them.
Stone’s boldest decision is to end the play with Loman’s death. We do not get, in this production, the final two-and-a-half pages of Miller’s play, titled Requiem, in which the family buries Willy and the main voice is that of his long-suffering wife.
This is no small change, as it is in this section that Linda reveals that the house has been paid off and so Willy doesn’t — wouldn’t — have to work so hard any more. ‘We’re free and clear,’ she says, in the final words of the drama. ‘We’re free… we’re free…’
Personally, I prefer that ending because in a bizarre way it’s more optimistic. Loman didn’t need to kill himself because of money worries. But, then, that’s not why he did kill himself, as Friel’s stunningly empathetic performance makes clear.
‘You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.’ When Friels bellows this famous yet somewhat illogical line it stings with a sudden truth, spoken by a man who knows what he’s talking about.
Death of a Salesman is at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney until 19 August.
Stephen Romei is the Australian’s literary editor. His blog, A Pair of Ragged Claws, is at www.theaustralian.com.au/theartsTags: iapps