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Death of a Salesman, Royal Exchange, Review

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. My debut poetry pamphlet is available at
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With some new productions of classic plays it is hard to answer the question - why show this now? This is not the case with the Royal Exchange's new staging of Death of a Salesman.

Arthur Miller's modern tragedy was first produced in 1949 - before terms like sub-prime mortgage, gig economy, outsourcing and zero-hour contracts were part of daily currency. But they could easily be applied to this story of one American dream unravelling.

Willy Loman (Don Warrington) is a 63-year-old travelling salesman for whom a life on the road is bringing diminishing returns and guzzling up his remaining reserves of energy.

Theatre, Manchester, Don Warrington, Arthur Miller, Sarah Frankcom
Don Warrington And Maureen Beattie. Photo by Johan Persson.

Don Warrington moves around the stage like an injury-ridden former sports star.

He wavers between a low, almost inaudible growl and animated near-shouting. His mood swings between nostalgia, angry frustration, guilt and stubborn optimism. We, the audience, weigh up which of this traits will eventually win out in his spinning mind. Miller's original title for the play was Inside of his Head.

He is, in the words of his wife, an "exhausted" man. Maureen Beattie captures the fragile bonhomie of Linda Loman. She plays along with his face-saving deceptions to save him from himself and cheer him on in his last lap of his carer and last set of outstanding mortgage payments.

As the house slowly falls apart, Willy proclaims: "Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it's broken."

Theatre, Manchester, Don Warrington, Arthur Miller, Sarah Frankcom, Elizabeth Twells, Buom Tihngang, Ashley Zhangazha
Elizabeth Twells, Buom Tihngang, Ashley Zhangazha. Photo by Johan Persson.

Don Warrington was last seen at the Royal Exchange as King Lear . Instead of a dynasty of three daughters, Willy Loman has two sons - Ashley Zhangazha returns to the Royal Exchange after Guys And Dolls as Biff. And Buom Tihngang plays Happy.

Ashley Zhangazha and Buom Tihngang have a terrific rapport in terms of the timing and rhythm of their brotherly exchanges.They and the other actors are well supported by Pete Malkin's percussive soundtrack.

The lighting design by Jack Knowles, spotlights the actors who are speaking at the time. This gives the production both a cinematic and intimate feel, as well as psychological intensity.

Theatre, Manchester, Don Warrington, Arthur Miller, Sarah Frankcom,
Don Warrington. Photo by Johan Persson.

Writing in his autobiography, (Timebends: a life, Methuen, 1987), Arthur Miller says: "On the play's opening night a woman who shall not be named was outraged, calling it "a time bomb under American capitalism"; I hoped it was, or at least under the bullshit of capitalism, this pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, having a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last."

Theatre, Manchester, Don Warrington, Arthur Miller, Sarah Frankcom
Lee J Cobb (Willy), seated, with Arthur Kennedy (Biff), left, and Cameron Mitchell (Happy) in the 1949 production of 'Death of a Salesman'

New plays may well be being written about crashing dreams and daily battles for dignity and survival. In the meantime, Death of a Salesman, directed by Sarah Frankcom, is an often gruelling but compelling reminder of how language and technology may have been updated but the system and individuals within it can still malfunction in exactly the same way.

: Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, October 2018
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Why? Arthur Miller’s classic play shines a light on modern life
When: Until 17 November
Phone: 0161 833 9833
Where: Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann's Square, Manchester
Cost: Standard Tickets from £18.50
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