Going for the hard sell

19th April 2008 at 01:00

As Warren Mitchell gears himself up to play in `Death of a Salesman' again, Reva Klein visits him at home to find him a long way from acting his age. To you and me, he may be the cantankerous old man known to the world as Alf Garnett. Indeed, to hear Warren Mitchell's gravelly, hyperactive exclamations out in the garage when his wife's car won't start, you could imagine that you'd wandered on to the set of `Till Death Us Do Part. Except that Alf's wife never had a Jag that was kept in a double garage adjoining a gargantuan pile just off Hampstead Heath.

While Mitchell will always be most famous for his role as the rabid Alf Garnett that he acted on and off for nearly a quarter of a century, he has played a hundred other roles since he started the first incarnation of Garnett in 1964. He has been pretty much in constant demand, both here and abroad for over three decades. In Australia, he is a national hero and has taken up citizenship as a measure of it.

For such a small man, there's no denying that Mitchell is big. He's in amazingly good shape considering his recent 70th birthday and a hip replacement a few years ago, both experiences which might have slowed down a lesser mortal. Warren Mitchell, however, has energy that is nothing less than extraordinary. And he has no intention of slowing down.

And why should he? He loves what he does and others do too. Arthur Miller called him the greatest interpreter of the character, Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman, he had ever seen, after witnessing his monumental performance in the National Theatre's production of Miller's play in 1979. Director Peter Hall also heaped praise on his moving portrayal of Willy, the doomed Brooklyn salesman whose dreams and ambitions are running on a collision course with the failures in his life at work and home.

Now, 17 years and two productions of Death of a Salesman later (both in Australia), Warren Mitchell returns to the role in a five-part BBC schools television adaptation of the play, directed by Miller's most trusted director, David Thacker. Unusually, and suggesting what a coup this is for an ambitious BBC Schools department, the film is also to be transmitted for prime-time viewing. This reflects also how rarely Miller has allowed one of his most famous plays to be adapted for television.

First performed in 1949, Death of a Salesman has become one of the definitive modern classic dramas, exploring the bitter end of an ageing man forced to face his own self-deceptions and to accept the absence of hope. As his life collapses around him, Willy Loman, with his mind in turmoil, tries to make sense of his story. "A man can't go out the way he came in. A man has gotta add up to something," he says.

But what makes Warren Mitchell's Willy Loman so powerful? And what compelled him to return to it after having played the part three times before and hot on the heels of a punishing tour of the West Yorkshire Playhouse's King Lear and playing Shylock for a Radio 4 production of The Merchant of Venice? Clearly, the part means something more to him than work, with its themes having echoes in his own life. In his own past, he recalls trying to work as a commercial traveller: "I succeeded in breaking expensive bags full of china and glass. I understand what it's like to take bags around and sell nothing."

He also understands what it means to be a parent who, like the overbearing salesman, "pushes children into directions they don't want to go". His relationship with his own three children, now grown-up and two of them actors, has had its moments of tension. In terms of Death of a Salesman, Warren Mitchell believes, it's the timeless frustrations and poignancy of those family relationships, whether set in Forties America or in the here and now, that gives the play its enduring quality.

The play's sustained popularity and relevance is helped, too, by the fact that Willy Loman is an Everyman figure, sketched in a way that makes him adaptable to all cultures and societies. The play's themes, of a man unable to make sense of his failing powers and of an individual trapped in an unforgiving society, has allowed the play to step beyond its immediate setting and appeal to an international audience.

"I try not to concern myself with the social context," says Mitchell, from his kitchen overlooking a vast, wintry garden. And perhaps he's right that it doesn't matter. His producer for the BBC Schools production, Ann Brogan, sees his engagement with the character of Willy as a deeply personal and emotional one that transcends time or place.

"Warren lives and breathes the character. He understands Willy Loman with his heart. One day, at the end of rehearsing a scene, he crumpled up and collapsed in tears. Everyone standing around watching, the sound and lighting technicians, fell apart too. Everyone was crying."

When I met him, Warren Mitchell had been out of work for one week and was already starting to climb the walls. He recalls a joke of Roy Kinnear's that neatly sums up his own insecurities. "Actors never decide to give up acting. They just suddenly look up one day and realise that the phone hasn't rung in 10 years. You know, when you get to 70, there aren't that many great roles left."

But during my visit, the phone didn't stay quiet for 10 minutes. Although he says he's got nothing in the pipeline, he's been offered a national tour of King Lear in Australia. Even though he's not jumping at it at the moment "it's a bit daunting. The emotional demands are awful to contemplate, and so are the eight performances a week" there's a spark in his eyes when he talks about it that could mean that Warren Mitchell will be returning Down Under to assume the role of another sad, mad man before too long.

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