Anthony LaPaglia on Sydney stage in ‘Death of a Salesman’

By Gill Canning

Anthony LaPaglia and Josh Helman in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Jeff Busby
Anthony LaPaglia and Josh Helman in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Jeff Busby
Arthur Miller’s play sounds a warning bell to parents and influencers.

“Attention must be paid.” The best-known line from the play Death of a Salesman is uttered by Brooklyn housewife Linda Loman to her two grown sons, Biff and Happy. Willy, their husband and father, is struggling to survive life on the road as a sixty-ish travelling salesman, and is showing signs of delirium and dementia. 

Linda is steadfast in her support, even as Willy lies to her about how much money he is making, meaning she must somehow find a way to pay their bills. “I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person,” she tells her sons in a moving speech.

Death of a Salesman was written by one of America’s greatest playwrights, Arthur Miller. It is about the collapse of the American dream for those who believed in the US as the land of milk and honey but for whom that dream cruelly evaporated. Willy falsely believes himself to be “well-liked” when in truth he has become a figure of pity and pathos. His sons, Biff and Happy have done their best to fulfill their father’s expectations for them, with limited success. In fact, his overstated belief in their abilities has stunted their growth as men and hampered their own chance of happiness.

Ben O’Toole, Anthony LaPaglia and Josh Helman in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Brett Boardman.

Popular Australian-American actor Anthony LaPaglia plays Willy in this acclaimed production at Sydney’s Theatre Royal as firstly a stubbornly proud, then bewildered, then broken man. This journey to his demise is played out in front of a single set – several rows of bleachers at Ebbets Field baseball stadium in Brooklyn. It’s an interesting design choice on which the entire cast sits and observes the action when not on stage. 

Supporting La Paglia, Alison White (Frontline, The Dressmaker, Jack Irish) as Linda conveys to the audience the nuanced emotions of a woman without the agency to change her situation who consequently gives everything she has to keep her husband upright. Son Biff is outstandingly played by Josh Helman (Jack Reacher, Mad Max: Fury Road and the X-Men series), desperately trying – ultimately breaking down and begging – his father to open his eyes and see their family for what they are. 

Alison Whyte and Josh Helman in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Brett Boardman.

Although written 70 years ago, Death of a Salesman remains a thought-provoking play. Audiences will see our own society reflected in its dual concerns: the dangers of living a life of dissemblance and artifice, and the potential ill-effects of parental pressure exerted by some.

We only have to consider the curated existences many of us create on Facebook and Instagram, as well as those who use their children as a means of gaining fame and fortune for themselves online to find relevant, potentially harmful modern-day parallels.

Death of a Salesman

Theatre Royal

Until 23 June, 2024


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