When Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman premiered in 1948, the closure and demolition of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ stadium at Ebbets Field was a decade away.

Director Neil Armfield’s production of Miller’s modern-day tragedy, which is scheduled to open at Sydney’s Theatre Royal mid-May, brings these the two events into resonant proximity.

Josh Helman and Anthony LaPaglia in Death of a Salesman. Photo © Jeff Busby

The idea, Armfield tells Limelight, emerged from a re-reading of Miller’s autobiography, Time Bends.

“There’s a passage in which he describes being at the amphitheatre at Syracuse just after the war,” Armfield says. “This is a period when he was just about ready to give up as a playwright and he stood in this space where thousands of people would gather. He realised that here had existed a kind of theatre that was poetic, social and necessary and it inspired in Miller the idea that a national theatre was possible – the theatre of a nation and of its civilisation. That great modern tragedies were possible. When he went back to the States, he wrote Salesman.”

It seemed right, says Armfield, that Death of a Salesman could take on something of that ancient architecture of tragedy. “Designer Dale Ferguson came up with this idea of a kind of memory space that would release the play from its usual domestic spaces – an American amphitheatre. Ebbets Field seemed perfect.”

Miller’s plays are known for their detailed descriptions of stage settings. Armfield says he pays meticulous attention to everything Miller has written but that “sometimes it’s great to transcend what the playwright originally had in mind.”

“It reminds me of when I was working with Patrick White. He loved it when directors and designers abandoned his stage directions and came up with something more theatrical than he imagined. And in this case, I love the discipline of having all the scenes played in front of the cast, whether they’re in the scene or not.”

Neil Armfield and Anthony LaPaglia in rehearsals in Melbourne 2023. Photo © Eugene Hyland

Produced by GWB Entertainment and Red Line Productions, Death of a Salesman arrives in Sydney after a stellar run in Melbourne, with Anthony LaPaglia leading the cast as Willy Loman, the ageing titular salesman struggling with the notion of redundancy at multiple levels.

“Anthony has come to this at exactly the right moment,” Armfield says. “Physically, age-wise, vocally, everything really. It’s perfect for him. And it’s no burden that he was Eddie Carbone [the subject of Miller’s A View from the Bridge] on Broadway all those years ago. They’re very different characters of course, but there’s something tragically close about them, I think.”

“There’s a quality in Anthony that I first saw when we did the film of Holding the Man and he was playing John Caleo’s father. He’s can give you that sense of someone with great pride, a stiff-necked pride, really – while still being open to emotion, to heartache. He does that so beautifully.”

Returning with LaPaglia for the Sydney season are Alison Whyte (Willy’s wife Linda) and Josh Helman as eldest son Biff, the high school football star whose sheen is fading. Among those joining the cast are Marco Chiappi as Charley, Willy’s long-time friend, Ben O’Toole as Biff’s feckless brother Happy and Anthony Phelan as Ben, Willy’s enigmatic and successful older brother.

“I think Anthony [Phelan] brings something special to that role,” says Armfield. “There’s something otherworldly about him. It’s a mix of head-in-the-clouds and brutality. And I’m really excited that Ben O’Toole is coming in to play Hap. I really rate him as an actor.”

Armfield says he wasn’t surprised by the critical reception and box office success of Death of a Salesman’s Melbourne season but admits to being buoyed by it.

“To be able to fill house after house after house with a so-called ‘straight’ drama outside of the usual subscription seasons … it gives you hope.”

Death of a Salesman plays at the Theatre Royal, Sydney from 17 May.

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