The Deutsches Theater’s Death of a Salesman starts off with Willy Loman’s funeral.
The effects of the 2008 sub-prime housing crisis still ripple worldwide. We are upside-down on our mortgages, car loans, student loans. The American Dream is looking more and more like a nightmare. No time like the present for Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
But maybe not Bastian Kraft’s version. He chops off the tail of the play and puts it up at the beginning. The titular character is dead in the first minutes and stays dead like this for 90 minutes.
Not literally. Cold projector lights come on, sharp shadows are thrown larger-than-life up on the scrim in lieu of a set, the play starts in earnest. Ulrich Matthes (that’s Goebbels from Downfall to you) shuffles onto the stage. He’s one of Berlin’s best actors, bar none, but Kraft seems to have given the direction of “sad clown after removing his make-up for the final time”. Depression’s not theatrical. Matthes’ Willy gets down on his knees to beg to keep the sales job he’s had for 36 years from his new 20-something boss: it could be heartbreaking, but he seems to know as well as we do that it’s all over. None of the characters, not even the sons, hunky Biff and slimy Happy, have any fight left in them. The empty stage compounds the effects of the zombie dramaturgy and deadened acting. When actors turn upstage to speak, their voices echo in the cavernous space.
With the first scene change, the lone chair and table on stage start to rotate, their shadows twisting and warping 20-feet tall. It’s vertiginous and exciting. This set-up allows Willy to live in the past and present at the same time, haunted by the animated shadows of lost figures from his past: his brother Ben, his mistress. It’s all black and white. It’s all shadow-boxing. These metaphors are a little too obvious. Because we already know how it ends: Willy Loman commits suicide so his family can collect on his life insurance payments. It’s a perfect tragedy, but it only works if Willy bravely and stubbornly clings to the American Dream, and his human dignity, to the very end. At the Deutsches Theater, the stage is bright, but the lights have already gone out.
Death of a Salesman (with English surtitles), Jun 26, 20:00; Jun 28, 19:30, Deutsches Theater, Mitte