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Australia's new frontier for classic lost dream

Modern spin transforms Arthur Miller's tragedy.

THE show will go on, even though it will be two months late. Colin Friels' is coming to Geelong to star as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's classic tragedy Death of a Salesman, after recovering from his dramatic on-stage collapse in Sydney last August.

The show's final performances at Belvoir Street Theatre had to be cancelled after Friels was taken to hospital and the transfer to the Geelong Performing Arts Centre put on hold until November 8-11. This follows the show's current extended revival season at Sydney's Theatre Royal, rather than before it.

Demand for seats is intense for the Geelong season, which will be the show's only appearance in Victoria. It is directed by Simon Stone, former director of the Hayloft Project and now resident director at Belvoir Street Theatre.

''The booking for Geelong was made very early,'' he says. ''It might have been too expensive for anyone else but Geelong was one of the first on board.''

Friels will be joined by Genevieve Lemon as the salesman's wife, after setting a box-office record at Belvoir.

Stone, who rose to prominence in Melbourne as founder of Hayloft presenting radical revisions of classic European and Greek plays, could not alter the text of Miller's 1949 classic for copyright reasons but has changed the setting from post-war Brooklyn to contemporary Australia.


He believes its contemporary setting demonstrates it is far from a museum piece and uncovers the play's ''true potency'', driven by Friels' great performance.

''When I used to catch up with the show, Colin was always finding new levels of sophistication in the part. It is one of the most eye-opening and rewarding performances I have seen.''

Stone says the play sends an ''incredibly modern'' message. ''It is one of the greatest plays ever written and doesn't need any changes.''

He describes the work as a memory play, with Willy looking back on his life as a travelling salesman and its failures. His observations of the American dream still seem relevant - trees cut down by developers and new apartments edging out the sunlight.

''The play has ominous overtones after the GFC,'' Stone says. ''Its message is coming true because the dream has failed for an entire nation and the world, rather than just a single person. Because the great experiment has failed, it becomes a memory play with a grander scale than its 1940s ideology.''

Stone has had a frantic schedule because Salesman is one of three mainstage shows he has directed this year. It is not something he is planning to do again. ''My theatrical muscles were really stretched by the last one.''

That was the adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's screenplay Face to Face, which opened at the Sydney Theatre Company last month, with a script by Stone and the STC's co-director, Andrew Upton.

The third show was Stone's version of a lesser-known American classic, Strange Interlude, from 1928 by Eugene O'Neill, which Stone revised into a lean tragic comedy.

It opened in May and was closely followed by Salesman. Stone says the secret to his endurance was the long preparation he enjoyed last year. ''I used to depend on the spontaneity that arises in the rehearsal room for that crucial ingredient in a production,'' he says. ''Now I can develop a loose framework in advance and still leave space for the actors' instincts to respond spontaneously.'' He says it is easy to change gears once in the rehearsal room for a different show, as his collaborators ''drag him into the new reality''.

Respite from Stone's busy schedule is in sight. He has just returned from Oslo with the cast from last year's Belvoir production of Ibsen's The Wild Duck, after appearing at the Ibsen International Festival.

The show, which had a season at the Malthouse in February, won three Helpmann Awards and four Sydney Theatre Awards, but was also criticised for the modernising script by Stone and Chris Ryan.

He had a break in London after Norway and worked on two new projects. ''That's my idea of a holiday - sitting in a London pub putting together ideas for a play.''

Death of a Salesman opens at Geelong Performing Arts Centre from November 8-11.