However you measure it, Death of a Salesman is one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. The story of struggling salesman Willy Loman dealing with his failure and unfulfilled dreams has won the Pulitzer Prize, numerous Tony Awards and cemented playwright Arthur Miller’s place among the giants of the American stage.
Now a new production is showing in Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre for a strictly limited season, now playing until Sunday October 15, 2023. The show features a cast filled with big names, including Anthony LaPaglia as Willy, Alison Whyte as his wife Linda, Steve Bastoni as Charley, and Josh Helman as Biff, the son who turns his back on his father’s dreams for him.
“Right from the beginning, I knew playing Biff was going be probably the most challenging thing that I’ve done,” says Helman. “But potentially also the most rewarding.”
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Helman’s forged a steady career for himself in film (X-Men: Days of Future Past and Mad Max: Fury Road) and television (Flesh and Bone and Wayward Pines) in recent years. While he’s also done his fair share of stage work, this is the first time he’s performed any of Miller’s work.
“It’s been a classic for over 70 years now and it’s a classic for a reason,” says Helman. “I really tried to not come into it with any idea about how I was going to play Biff, but now I know that, more than any other role I’ve had, it’s the most complex. There’s just so much going on for Biff as a character – the feelings that he has, towards Willy especially, are so complex and so multilayered.”
Even over 70 years on from when Miller wrote Death of a Salesman, Helman can relate to the message at the heart of the play. “On the surface this is a play about a man whose mind is kind of slipping away from him. My character is obviously the son of that man, and I lost my dad to dementia at the end of last year. That sense of alignment is what I feel like I’m bringing to this version of Salesman,” he says.
Working with the cast was a bit of a dream for Helman, who, like most of Australia, has been a fan of Anthony LaPaglia (Without a Trace; Frasier) for a long time. There’s some serious star power in the rest of the cast, and while Helman is included in that, he admits to experiencing imposter syndrome at the start of rehearsals.
“I was absolutely shitting myself before getting here, but it’s been the most incredible experience,” he says. “The level that everyone’s playing at from top to bottom is so high that I think we’re all kind of trying to raise each other’s bars.”
It’s also Helman’s first time working with director Neil Armfield (Cloudstreet, The Diary of a Madman, Exit the King), who Helman describes as “an absolute dream”.
“He’s steering the ship in such a beautiful way where we’re all free to discover things and make mistakes and try things,” says Helman. “That’s the kind of environment where the best stuff comes. We’re all kind of just so eager to jump in and see what see what kind of unplanned, interesting things that could come out of the day.”
In the end though, it all comes back to Miller’s text.
“The reason it’s been around for so many years is because of the words that are on the page,” he says. “But this is its own thing. I can’t imagine what people are going to think –
I’m just eager to get in front of an audience and see what they say.”
Death of a Salesman is at Her Majesty’s Theatre until October 15, 2023. See more information and book tickets.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with GWB Entertainment & Redline Productions.