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Wednesday, 1 August 2012

BELVOIR’S ‘Death of a Salesman’ directed by Simon Stone & dissected by me.

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).


  1. My first thoughts as I left last Wednesday evening were "will that play blogger I know agree with me?" And yes. You have. Mentioned every last feeling right here, especially the points I could not express in words. Thanks for that. I feel some closure in my reaction to the performance, which I too am pleased I saw for the exact same reasons.

    Did Friels leave the stage into the audience exit briefly only to return seconds later from the "front door" entrance towards the middle of act 2 for you? A colleague at work could not recall the moment. It was so brief and at the time so pointless to me- Especially since he had spent every other moment of the play on, it really bugged me. And if he did, was there a reason?

    1. Hi Kenney- glad I helped articulate a few thoughts flying around. I find people often come to my reviews after seeing a show for that exact reason. It's like having a conversation about the show- one of the reasons I really wanted to do this blog. Thanks for the support.

      Don't recall the moment you refer to with Friels. If it happened I probably put it down to the cast or Stone trying to make sense of the imposed vision and with no house, that changes many blocking choices. Between all the other out of place references, I suppose I might have just thrown it in with them.

      Alternatively, he may have been looking for an escape route...!

  2. I tend to think that 90% of directing is casting. So in that sense ... Stone is not so much lucky as good at 90% of directing.

    The other 10% is about imparting a unifying aesthetic. And as someone who was sceptical about a car-centric "Death of a Salesman", it's absolutely supported by the text. The opening dialogue is about the car, and Willy's final exit is in the car (although by a different method in this production to the crash in the original). I thought some of the surprise-appearances-from-car in act one were a tad show-off-the-tricks I can do, but at the same time, again, they have a basis in the text (the two characters that appear that way are coming from the deeper recesses of Willy's memory and are, in turn, a shameful secret and the embodiment of his ambition). At the same time, the use of the car in act two (with the cast loading in to go to Biff's football game, and exiting out for the fatal dinner meeting) worked like gangbusters.

    The thing is, this was a production that was simultaneously absolutely Simon Stone and absolutely Arthur Miller, in every way that matters. I never got a sense of a director washing over the writer - instead I got the writer delivered staggeringly directly to me.

  3. Simey employs a formula in a way that is not dissimilar to the way the chefs of nouvelle cuisine employed theirs, a style of cooking that stretches back hundreds of years. Although the main characteristics of nouvelle cuisine are too many to mention here, the only one I see as dramatically different is that the chefs always paid very close attention to the dietary needs of their guests.

  4. Jane, did Belvoir eventually agree to provide you with tickets to their productions? If not, I'd like to offer a small contribution to offset some of the tickets costs, as I think your blog is worth supporting (even if you have insulted at least one of my friends). How do we make the donation happen, and have you thought about adding a PayPal account to your blog to facilitate this? John

    1. Hi John.

      Belvoir will not provide me with comps. The official line is that it 'would be disrespectful to their artists' and they argue that I have been on public record as paying for my own tickets, so why stop now. I'm not sure how to reconcile how to keep paying and review so consistently (it does get expensive) but I can't imagine that asking to be subsidised from the public would be the solution.
      It's actually a very generous offer (and thanks for the support). I am thankful but I can't accept it. In some ways being independent means I could never be accused of being swayed by other interests.
      Maybe I'll just have to advertise that if someone has a group booking and suddenly someone drops out on the night and you have a free spare ticket, tweet me!
      And sorry about insulting your friends. An occupational hazard I'm afraid...

      Thanks again.