Death of a Salesman, Lyric Shaftesbury, London

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The Independent Culture

It would be wrong to adulate the late Arthur Miller. He himself would have been wary of the sentimentalising dangers of speaking only well of the dead. After all, his modern tragedy, Death of a Salesman (1949), warns against the culture of talking things up, as the American small-time commercial rep, Willy Loman, clings to his dream of doing great and getting rich. Though ageing and facing redundancy, with his mind starting to go, Willy keeps trying to spin comforting myths about his career and his family's brilliance.

It would be wrong to adulate the late Arthur Miller. He himself would have been wary of the sentimentalising dangers of speaking only well of the dead. After all, his modern tragedy, Death of a Salesman (1949), warns against the culture of talking things up, as the American small-time commercial rep, Willy Loman, clings to his dream of doing great and getting rich. Though ageing and facing redundancy, with his mind starting to go, Willy keeps trying to spin comforting myths about his career and his family's brilliance.

Implicitly, he embodies the values, the practices and the flaws of a competitive capitalist society. He starts retreating increasingly into the past, remembering his idolised pioneering brother, Ben, and the golden youth of his son Biff, who was briefly a sporting champ. Or else he dwells on the future, crediting the idea that his two offspring are about to clinch some fantastic deal. His optimism and imagination sustain him but are his ruin, too, because they're founded on lies and barely film over his growing despair. Ultimately, the bullied and exasperated Biff (Douglas Henshall) rams home a bunch of hard truths, intending to open his father's eyes yet threatening to drive him, mentally, over the edge.

What is great cause for celebration is that this revival - the first major production to commemorate Miller in the UK - doesn't just boast a high calibre ensemble. Directed by Robert Falls (from Chicago's Goodman Theatre), the family conflicts are extremely sharply observed, at once fiercely gripping and full of subtle emotional complexities - all played out in a vast inky void where the kitchen table stands like an isolated shard of reality and other boxed-in rooms spin into view with a dream-like fluidity, casting shafts of light through the darkness.

Brian Dennehy is superb. His Willy Loman is physically formidable: a domineering man, beefy and square-jawed but ashen, with a grin like a skull. He exudes a penumbra of potential violence and explodes in hollering rages. At the same time, he is palpably fearful and struggling. He has moments of intense tenderness with his wife, Clare Higgins's Linda, and looks like a dying Minotaur, lost in his maze of fantasies. Higgins, meanwhile, continues to prove that she is one of the best actresses of her generation, playing the long-suffering spouse and mother with mercurial flickers of repressed anxiety, exhaustion and intimidated subservience over a formidable, rock-solid base of devotion. Her Linda also has searing outbursts of rage and grief. Henshall is convincingly bruised and frustrated, Mark Bazeley has a really nasty edge as his philandering brother, and Dennehy's showdown with his startled boss - Steve Pickering's ashamed but merciless Howard - is ferocious.

This staging is not flawless. Jonathan Aris nerdily caricatures Biff's brainy school pal, Bernard, and the set's sliding walls and revolves are occasionally distracting. But these are cavils. As for the play, Miller seems to fall into his own talking-it-up trap, with the tragic crescendo of Willy's final speech sounding problematically phoney. But the narrative timebends which follow Willy's stream of consciousness are mostly fascinating. Overall, the production is riveting rather than poignantly tear-jerking and, on reflection, it may be all the sterner and stronger for that.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

To 5 November. 0870 890 1107

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