ARTHUR MILLER’S Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman, is an unlikeable person.
He verbally abuses and bullies his wife and sons and is a liar and a braggart in his efforts to sell himself as a big man with a big future.
But he is utterly human and his emotional pain is palpable, leaving audiences feeling rent with the futility of pursuing the “American dream”.
Aussie actor John Stanton, who takes on the role in Black Swan’s latest production, says there’s another side to Loman which makes his death even more poignant.
“He’s not a nice guy [but] it’s a human condition…we all relate to in some way…but you have to see that Willy is charming,” he told the Voice.
Since opening on Broadway in 1949 critics have described Death of a Salesman as symbolic of the legions of middle-American workers who are disposable to modern capitalism, something Stanton says applies equally to Australia.
Willy Loman’s ranting tirades and increasingly fragile grip on past and present are obvious markers of depression says Stanton, who’d suffered the black dog for years before being diagnosed.
“Like a lot of men my age I have been through it in a very, very bad way.
“No sleep, constant body pain…things come into your head and don’t go out, you are constantly revaluing, re-judging.
“In depression the past is not separate from the present.”
Stanton says at 68 he’s the perfect age to play 63-year-old Loman.
Loman is up to his ears in debt after being demoted and having had his pay reduced. He’s resorted to accepting “loans” from his friend Charley in order to hide the truth from his family.
When he snaps and confronts his boss (the son of the man who’d employed him) he’s fired, plunging him deeper into despair and more into the past where eldest son Biff’s prowess on the football field had promised big things that never materialised.
Loman’s acerbic relationship with Biff is painful to watch.
It’s something Stanton has first-hand knowledge of, his father also living vicariously through the athleticism of his son, at the expense of his other children, while at the same time wanting his children to see him as a “great man”.
“I just wanted him to be a great dad.”
Stanton is probably better known for his roles in iconic Aussie TV shows such as Homicide, Matlock Police and Division 4, but he’s happier on stage, whether playing Shakespeare’s King Lear or Tennessee Williams’ Big Daddy.
Death of a Salesman, at the Heath Ledger Theatre, opens May 4–21 (five shows added due to popular demand).
by JENNY D’ANGER