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STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, England (Reuters) - Arthur Miller's quintessentially American work "Death of a Salesman" has been parachuted into Shakespeare's hometown and given the unique honor of playing on the Bard's birthday this year.
The portrait of a broken American dream is lauded as "the greatest American play of the 20th century" by director Gregory Doran, whose new production in Stratford-upon-Avon has subtle Shakespearean overtones.
This year marks the centenary of Miller's birth and, as with Shakespeare, his writing is remarkable for its enduring insight into psychology and relationships.
Doran's show, which opened on Wednesday, toys with those parallels by casting Antony Sher and Alex Hassell as Willy Loman and his son Biff, following their performances as Falstaff and Prince Hal in "Henry IV Parts 1 and 2".
Sher plays ageing salesman Willy, the main protagonist of Miller's play, as a rotund moustachioed figure, yet one suffering a breakdown similar to that of King Lear as he talks to himself with a faraway look and heads towards self-destruction.
It is no coincidence that Sher, a renowned Shakespearean actor, will play Lear on the same stage next year in a production that Doran sees as a companion piece to Miller's classic.
As Willy's dreams and disappointments pull at the heart strings, his position as a small cog in the American economic machine is driven home by a set of vast apartment blocks squeezing out his tiny house in Brooklyn.
On one level, the story of a traveling salesman in the first half of the last century seems a long way from the modern digital world, but the tale of how decades of hard work fail to deliver Willy's hoped-for better life still resonates.
As his downtrodden wife Linda, played powerfully by Harriet Walter, insists "attention must be paid" to this man. Walter and Sher previously worked together in 1999 as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth -- another doomed couple.
"Death of a Salesman", which opened on Broadway in 1949, will be the first non-Shakespeare "birthday play" to be performed on the main stage at Stratford when the curtain rises on the show on April 23, the day the Royal Shakespeare Company celebrates its namesake's birthday.
The honor is another sign of the U.S. playwright's renaissance on this side of the Atlantic, following well-received productions of "A View from the Bridge" and "The Crucible" in London last year.
Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky