Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is often described as one of the greatest plays ever written, and a new production gives enough reason to confirm that claim.
The play’s main character (‘hero’ would be an inappropriate word), is Willy Loman, a travelling salesman, whose sales talk is about himself: he is the most popular man around; people flock to be in his company; he is the firm’s star salesman; he could have had a top desk job if he had wanted to but the road job is his metier and so on. As the play progresses, we realise that the rosy scenario he has built around himself is false, that the halo hasn’t just slipped: perhaps it was never there. Loman has also constructed many castles in the air for his two sons, Biff and Happy, particularly Biff: he is an all-star football player; he could walk into any job and earn a very large packet due to the sheer force of his personality. The castles look so real that the sons believe they actually exist, with disastrous consequences.
Death of a Salesman is about many things: it is about the materialistic values of society and how they entice everyone to embrace them; it’s about the power of illusion and how everyone begins to believe in them; it’s about self-delusion and how that false façade is often vital for one’s self-preservation. Through it all, Willy Loman emerges as a tragic hero. He is funny, he is garrulous, and though he doesn’t know it, he is often a figure of fun. In all this, he has an odd sense of pride, which prevents him from confiding about his failures even to his devoted wife and his closest friend. For the actor who plays the role it’s as big a challenge as theatre has to offer.
Alyque Padamsee is more than equal to the challenge : if Death of a Salesman is Miller’s masterpiece, this production is Padamsee’s masterpiece, both as actor and director. His tall, skeletal frame fills the role and makes it flesh; his bantering manner and his machine-gun talk get more and more frantic as reality begins to bite on all fronts. His unravelling is heartbreaking and it’s unlikely that there is a dry eye in the audience when he and his fiercely loyal wife (played brilliantly by Sabira Merchant) exchange their unsaid signals of distress. The sons are well cast too (Neel Tolani as Biff and Jim Sarbh as Happy) and do a wonderful job as two young men fighting destinies not of their own making. Rael Padamsee also needs to be congratulated for taking a break from the popular plays she generally produces, and putting this must-see production so well together.
At the same auditorium (NCPA’s Experimental Theatre), I saw another show light up the place. This time literally. Glow is an Australian production by their premier dance company, Chunky Moves. Glow is nominally a shortish item for one solitary female dancer, but in a sense, it is a duet too, for accompanying her are shadows, glowing lights and lights that frame her as she writhes around on a white sheet. Sarah Black is the dexterous dancer, her movements as supple and athletic as you can imagine. The choreographer Gideon Obarzanek has put together a most amazing show, the kind one hasn’t seen before. In a post-performance Q&A with audience, Obarzanek was asked about the technological marvel we had just seen. “The technology is quite simple really,” he said modestly.