Death of a Salesman at Berlin’s Schaubühne

In the final week of the winter term the theatre lab went to Berlin’s famous contemporary theatre, Schaubühne, to see Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Sticking reasonably closely to Miller’s original script, director Luk Perceval reconceives the tragedy of the post-war American dream in post-reunification Germany. Here in Berlin, Miller’s themes of unemployment and the broken promises of materialism assume contemporary relevance. Disenchanted salesman Willy Loman (Thomas Thieme) is in the twilight of his career. He lives on handouts from his rich neighbour Charley (Michael Rastl) and puts his own abandoned hopes into his two sons – layabout Happy (André Szymanski) and kleptomaniac Biff (Bruno Cathomas).

A forest of gum trees obscures the rear half of the stage. People from Willy Loman’s life skulk in the bushes together with Willy’s own evaporated hopes and guilty secrets. They struggle menacingly out of the undergrowth only to add to the explosive mix of betrayals and failures that destroy Willy. This jungle is carefully maintained by his wife Linda. Carola Regnier’s performance as Linda is bewitching in its stillness, complementing the frenetic activity of Happy and Biff, and Willy’s bursts of anger and despair. It is Linda who comes in for the lion’s share of directorial criticism. Papering over the rotten past, she languidly observes as the present disintegrates around her and sends the future hurtling out of control.

Technology emerges as a sinister symbol of success and repression in Perceval’s realisation. The Loman family’s attempts at communication are stunted by their fixation on the television set dominating the front of the stage. Interrupting the audience’s view of the characters, it seems designed to force a consideration of the way we replace authentic human interaction with digital makeshifts. Mobile phone tones and digital cameras intrude on pivotal moments of revelation, rendering Willy’s attempts to define his success by how well he is liked both noble and pathetic. Willy Loman is a dinosaur who hasn’t got a clue about technology, but is glued to the television screen. He is a salesman who can’t sell and a consumer who is ultimately consumed.

Perceval’s use of the bodies of the actors brings a raw physicality to the production. Biff lumbers clumsily around the stage in his underpants like an overgrown baby. The weightier nature of his thoughts are set forth in the stage presence of Cathomas, offset by the slender and virile (but vacuous) Happy. One hand rooting in his underpants, Happy delights in taunting his fleshy brother with his lightness of body and spirit, Szymanski occupying the stage with an effortless, speedy energy. When Willy fornicates with his ‘kleines Mädchen’ (Christina Geiße) it is as a comic grotesque of an old man’s skewed fantasies of his inglorious past. When Biff finally tramples over the family secrets, crushing his father’s hopes with honesty, Cathomas’ bodily authenticity is difficult to watch. Mouth and nose streaming, blue in the face, he does not so much shout his final confession as allow it to shatter his frame.

This Loman family is one trapped in a vicious dialogue between the dark nature of human weakness and the unnatural, thrusting insistence of a digital society, which frustrates attempts to rebuild understanding and refuses pleas for compassion. A riveting performance from the whole cast, this is the type of stuff for which Schaubühne is famous. The original script, a stream of consciousness in the addled mind of a man falling apart, lends itself particularly well to this bold staging, which brings Miller’s themes crashing into the visual space.

by Samantha Williams (’08, United Kingdom)

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