I’m trying to come up with a word or phrase to describe Simon Stone’s directorial style. So far all I have is ‘Ditexter’ for his ability to take the text and rework it to fit his brand. But the phrase that’s winning at the moment is ‘capsule director’- I think Stone likes to close his characters in to deliver their inner monologues and heighten the microcosm of the dilemma using any kind of capsule- a shower, box or in ‘Salesman’, the car. The metaphor becomes literal. Welcome to the world of Simon Stone and welcome to his latest offering, Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’.
Simon Stone probably has the reputation as Australia’s most sought after and employed director. I’ve had plenty of time to ask myself why. His fingerprints are all over each show he directs. There’s no disputing that ego is a driving force in his work- sometimes wonderful, sometimes disastrous. He favours stark, gritty theatricality over naturalism. He wants to be an auteur of works more than be contained in the role of playwright’s director. And just as he loads his vision onto each play, off he hops to his next project, empirical style, trusting his cast and team to realise his concept. And then I got it. What is Simon Stone’s smartest move as director? It’s to choose an outstanding cast to realise whatever vision he creates and to make it work.
‘Death of a Salesman’ is an interesting choice for Stone as he doesn’t normally choose a work he can’t ‘retextualise’ and Arthur Miller’s estate are pretty clear about changing the text. You can’t. Not a word. But by gee, how you stage those words, they are up for grabs and enter the capsule director, Stone.
Obligatory plot paragraph: ‘Death of a Salesman’ is the story of Willy Loman and his two sons, Biff and Happy and the conflict between the domestic and national values of a post WWII world. Whilst the success of an individual hinges on material gain, what happens when your sons can’t live up to your expectations and neither can you? That’s a simple overview but cuts to the heart of it.
If you are familiar with the play but not the production let me tell you that the only set device used in Stone’s interpretation is an old Ford Falcon on stage. Scenes are played inside, outside, on top of, around, in front, behind the car, etc. It’s done with natural and sometimes broad Australian accents and it’s set in modern times. Those not familiar with the play, Miller has it set at the time it was written, post WWII, mainly in the Loman household in suburban Brooklyn, USA.
I will tell you what I missed in this production- I missed the house. It wasn’t detrimental but I realised how much the play depends for me on that house. The American Dream seems tied up in that house. But I didn’t mind the car. Sometimes the entrances and exits from the car felt laughable- like characters conceived in the car emerging to fulfil role and function but when Colin Friels as Willy Loman is in that car, Stone’s capsule comes to life. I will admit to doing several of my own inner monologues in my car or rehearsing great conversations (with no-one in particular) in the sanctity and privacy of a moving vehicle. The car still worked for me. Didn’t love it but it worked.
I missed the appropriate accents, particularly as words can’t be changed it meant that cultural and time specific anachronisms were present throughout. We refer to particular years like 1928 and then we pull out an iPad. It’s strange and sometimes alienating until you settle into the groove of the show.
And this leads me to ask the question: is setting it in contemporary Australia giving it a new life and perspective or is it imposing a vision that doesn’t quite gel with this classically American play? As I’ve often said before, plays contain cultural codes that sometimes are very specific to the country. For example, would ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’ work if you set it in mid-America in 2012? Although the thematic concerns of ‘Death of a Salesman’ are transferable, I don’t know that the cultural context is in the same way. Giving it an Australian flavour does not necessarily make it an Australian play.
Here’s what I didn’t mind in Stone’s interpretation- the exclusion of the end scene. I always felt that after the demise of Willy, that last requiem scene felt redundant (hope I haven’t spoilt the plot…I’m hoping the title was already a giveaway). That last scene can feel didactic and Stone’s choice to omit it probably gave more importance to the man than the death. Of course, the death is meant to teach us that we can so easily be a victim of the times and it may get a little lost without the last scene but I think the rest of the play delivers that message clearly, especially with Colin Friels behind the wheel (literally).
So let’s talk about the incredible performances put in by Stone’s cast. Let’s start with Friels. The intensity and passion of his portrayal of Willy Loman was one of the most outstanding turns I’ve seen in Sydney this year. Loman is one of the most challenging acting roles- full of contradictions as he shifts from present to flashbacks, as hero to broken man, from his prime to long past it, from joy to anger and back again. Friels gave it everything. He was a powerhouse of emotion and pain. I’ve never seen anyone do this role with such integrity. Bravo.
Patrick Brammall and Hamish Michael as sons Biff and Happy were beautifully cast and gave those characters real depth. Brammall’s torment at the crossroads of feeding his father’s expectations and hopes as opposed to vomiting out the truth and abandoning the whole charade was exceptional. His ability to go from young Biff to disillusioned man meant that Brammall gave Friels the strength of interplay that you require in such a role. Michael’s Happy served to contrast this with humour and gentleness.
The rest of the ensemble gave wonderful cameos- special mentions to Luke Mullins in his variety of roles, each of them distinct and skilful; Pip Miller’s Charley, gave us another layer to Arthur Miller’s concept of fathers, sons and the Dream as did Steve Le Marquand. Blazey Best also filled the stage with energy in what were such crucial small roles. Genevieve Lemon also had plenty of wonderful moments as Willy’s wife, Linda. I just felt the constant teeth-clenching acting needed moderation. I know that sounds harsh because really, she was present in intensity and integrity throughout, but the fact that she spoke through her teeth constantly drove me a little insane.
So, in essence, I did enjoy it. I didn’t love it but the quality of acting made me glad I saw it.
The lighting and sound were so ingrained into the show, I honestly couldn’t tell you any specifics about it and there’s something quite wonderful about that- there’s a whole soundscape and atmosphere being created that is so subtle and complementary, it’s integrated completely. Now that’s good technical work.
I’ll contemplate this production a little more and decide whether Stone is just lucky or a very clever man (in a monologue to myself on the car trip home).