Queensland Theatre has begun the year on a high note, tackling Arthur Miller’s emotional and existential classic Death of a Salesman as the first production of their 2019 ‘Season of Dreamers’.

Widely considered to be one of the plays that defined the 20th century, Death of a Salesman won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play, as well as three Tony Awards for Best Revival, having been revived on Broadway four times as well as adapted for screen and television. The play is lauded for its timeless and universal themes, despite being set very specifically in the late 1940s.

Angie Milliken and Peter Kowitz in Queensland Theatre’s Death of a Salesman. Photo supplied

Queensland Theatre’s first preview show of Death of a Salesman was performed on February 10 – to the day, seventy years since the play premiered on Broadway in 1949 and 14 years since the playwright’s death in 2005.

Willy Loman was once the king of the road – a successful travelling salesman, known and welcomed and respected. Hard work and integrity earned Willy the full package – dutiful wife, two sons, the white picket fence, the American Dream. But after 30 years, sales are dropping away with Willy’s inability to travel far and difficulty focusing on the road. Their suburban paradise is now a weatherboard box, often in need of repair and hemmed in on every side by neighbours. Willy faces the possibility that his work and his values have become obsolete, and his oldest son has just returned home, directionless and lost in life. Willy’s grip on reality is loosening, and the audience is taken inside his head as well as into his home and the Loman family, with all its troubles and triumphs.

Jackson McGovern, Peter Kowitz and Thomas Larkin in Queensland Theatre’s Death of a Salesman. Photo supplied

At its core, the play questions a capitalist system that prioritises profit, falsely promises fulfilment, and unconcernedly discards people; it highlights human nature’s craving for genuine connection and validation; and, ultimately, it asks how much a human life is worth, and whether that worth differs throughout a life. Heavy, timeless themes, equally as relevant to a 2019 audience living in an isolated society of constant connection as they were to 1949 audiences caught between the horror and restrictions of World War II and the boom of 1950s commercialism. Masculinity and male relationships are placed into sharp relief, from paternal pride to fraternal affirmation, as is the idea of personality and nature as inherent, not shifting as people become adults but only becoming lost among responsibilities and social pressures.

An outstanding cast assembled on the Playhouse stage for this production, directed by Jason Klarwein. Peter Kowitz delivered an unforgettable, utterly heart-rending performance as Willy Loman, whether slumped from exhaustion and depression or gripped by a maniacal kind of optimism. He embodied the character so fully and elicited such an emotional response with his performance that the audience was left with a real sense of grief when the titular event came to pass.

Charles Allen, Kevin Hides and Peter Kowitzin Queensland Theatre’s Death of a Salesman. Photo supplied

Angie Milliken was fiercely devoted as Willy’s long-suffering wife Linda and struck fear into the heart of the audience as she admonished her sons, Biff (Thomas Larkin) and Happy (Jackson McGovern), for their thoughtlessness. The entire theatre fell into awed, embarrassed silence to witness this scolding, a testament to the intimate atmosphere that the cast and creatives had rendered in such a large space. Larkin and McGovern were both admirable in their roles, but Larkin’s interpretation of Biff’s fractured relationship with Willy and his search for meaning in life were especially affecting and compelling as they came to a head.

The American accents of all cast members were consistent, and their characterisations differed depending on the age of the character in that scene, from the way they spoke to the way they moved. This was especially notable from Kowitz as Willy grew more confused and desperate throughout the play, and Ilai Swindells (as Bernard), who transformed from a nervous boy into a self-assured man. Supporting cast members Charles Allen (Charley), Kevin Hides (Uncle Ben), Sarah Ogden (The Woman/Miss Forsythe), and Gemma Willing (Jenny/Letta) more than held their own alongside these incredible performances – the calibre was consistently high across the board.

The set of Queensland Theatre’s Death of a Salesman. Photo supplied

Anthony Spinaze’s design of period costumes was beautifully understated and added visually to the audience’s understanding of the characters, while set design by Richard Roberts brought the audience into the heart of the Loman household, to sit around their kitchen table and hear their whispers across the beds. Lighting design by Verity Hampson transported the audience to the golden light of Willy’s memories, complemented by projections designed by Justin Harrison, and the colour scheme slowly cooled until Willy was left uncertain of the border between his visions and reality. Composition and sound design, also by Harrison, took Willy’s visions from warm and familiar to terrifying crescendos.

Queensland Theatre delivers a truly unforgettable production of an ageless work whose ideas and questions will stay with you for days after the final curtain call.

Queensland Theatre’s Death of a Salesman is at the Playhouse, QPAC until March 2 


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