BTC’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ – a review.

By Charlotte Lock, MA Visual Culture.

Left to right: Samad Chowdhury (Biff Loman), Charlie Howe (Willy Loman) and Dan Carr (Happy Loman)

The Bailey Theatre Company’s (BTC) performance of Death of a Salesman proves an adept, compelling and innovative portrayal of Miller’s timeless classic. Set in St John’s College’s Old Library, the audience receives an insight into the lives of the Loman family in Brooklyn, who are faced with the weight of employment struggles, familial tensions, expectations and commitments and their own dreams and desires. Through this moving domestic drama, the audience follows the twenty-four hours before Willy Loman’s tragic death, as the cast tackle challenging and resonating themes with commendable sensitivity and care. Through the play, BTC are supporting the ‘If U Care, Share’ Foundation, a North East-based suicide prevention charity.

Radically transforming our beloved Old Library, the play utilises innovative set design to facilitate its success; transforming from a realistic familial home, composed of everything from a bed to a fridge, to a space for Willy’s memories to play out – the different stage zones prove effective in facilitating such honest performances. Directorial decisions with regards to the space of the stage, by Director of BTC’s Death of a Salesman, Molly Byford, and Assistant Director, James Taylor, enable an effective negotiation of complex scenes where Willy can be seen to talk simultaneously to his memories and individuals in the present. Furthermore, through zoning of the stage, the audience is able to witness activity in multiple different rooms at any one time – it is as though the walls of the family home have fallen away, providing the audience with an unparalleled insight into the lives of the Loman family. A particularly interesting directorial decision is the switch between the structure of the rooms in the present and the disintegration of these boundaries during Willy’s memories, as individuals leap through walls in the more fluid world of recollection. Further commendable is the re-use of furnishings, from the bookcases resonating with the setting of the library itself, to tiling from last term’s Bailey Ball and a New York skyline from Freshers’ week – almost as a comment on the issues with consumerism and capitalism in the play, BTC have found ways to re-purpose materials, giving them new life and purpose.

Death of a Salesman Cast and Production Team

Technical Director, Michael Crilly, and Assistant Technical Director, Thomas McCubbin, also deserve recognition for the lighting and technical aspects of the play – smooth transitions from subtle yellow-toned lighting, depicting the present day, to the reflective blue-shades depicting Willy’s memories, were critical in marking out the stage itself and shifts in the play, aiding the audience in following the narrative of the performance. Musical pieces featured occasionally throughout the production, largely jazz in nature, reflecting the period of the play, with sound utilised interestingly through the tape recorder and in the use of off-stage voices, not to mention the characters’ own performances on stage – the effect was at points a sensory overload, a harsh confrontation for the audience, yet simultaneously effective in illustrating the release of repressed rage and tension – these points of culmination hit the audience and involve them in the brutal tragedy of the play.

Left to Right: Ellie Fidler (Linda Loman) and Isabella Cowell (Charley)

Director, Byford, speaks of the raw emotion within the play, something which the cast of twelve, from a range of colleges, address beautifully, with depth of feeling and astounding versatility. Willy’s death, in particular, sees the cast adeptly shift between vehement outbursts of frustration and anguish and softer moments of sorrow and grief, which could perhaps be enhanced through a reduction in pace, allowing the audience to better grasp the strength of emotion and situation. Although actors occasionally slip out of their New York accent, this is redressed by compelling and brutally honest storytelling and emotion. Through scenes between the family of four, the audience are privy to moments of care, conflict and reflection, as the cast provide insight into family relations bound up in wider issues of the American Dream, consumerism and desire – be it for success, acceptance or understanding. Charlie Howe provided an astounding performance as Willy Loman, with exceptional depth of expression, timing and dynamism, as did Ellie Fidler, playing Willy’s wife, Linda – particularly poignant was the physicality of Fidler’s performance during the play’s final arguments before Willy’s death. The Loman brothers, played by Samad Chowdhury and Dan Carr, conveyed a compelling brotherly relationship; in particular, during Willy’s memories, Chowdhury and Carr adopt a boundless energy, playfully leaping with childish abandon, a compelling contrast to their serious discussions about dreams and expectations faced in their present day. The audience is confronted here with the difference between the ease of childhood dreams and the challenges of adult life. It is through the performance of Chowdhury and Carr that the audience can engage with some of the core themes, struggling with the weight of expectation, as Chowdhury states towards the end of the play, ‘Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be’. Through the brothers, the audience can find a relatable discussion of struggling with identity, purpose and dreams, highly relevant in a student play.

Brimming with innovative design, direction and unrestrained emotion, BTC’s Death of a Salesman explores the struggles of 1940s America which translate to the challenges of the present day with remarkable effect – so too can we find ourselves trying to understand our sense of self, purpose and ambitions, both individually and in relation to others. This poignant and highly relatable performance will remain with the audience, long after they have left the Old Library.

Death of a Salesman is showing at the Old Library in St John’s College on 18th January 2020 at 7.30pm and 19th January 2020 at 7pm.

Photographs by Hannah Picton.

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