Writer: Arthur Miller
Director: Abigail Graham
Reviewer: Tom Ralphs
Some plays have the ability to feel as if they belong to whatever time they are performed, their relevance remaining in spite of the years that have passed since they were first performed. Death of a Salesman is one such play and the Royal and Derngate touring production more than does justice to the play’s lasting appeal.
Willy Loman is a man who has spent his life chasing the American dream and never quite reaching it. While his brother went to the jungle at seventeen and came back a millionaire at twenty-one, Willy has remained a salesman. He has spent his life trying to do more than just survive and failing to understand why he is still paying for goods that have broken down by the time he finally owns them.
Willy began working in a time when the job of a salesman was one that came with respect alongside the hundreds of miles spent travelling from state to state each day. That time has passed, and his job has become commission only at the same moment that he can no longer sell anything. That he can neither accept or admit the truth and rejects the offers of a job away from the road when it is offered to him, confirms his status as a tragic hero, doomed through a sense of pride that outweighs his ability to live up to what he believes he ought to be.
Like many fathers, he hopes and believes that his sons will do better, but again the reality is something different. Eldest son Biff has drifted through life since school, and youngest son Happy is content to settle with the cards life has dealt him as long as there are women he can sleep with. That Willy may in some way be responsible for their shortcomings is another thing that does not appear to have crossed his mind.
As Willy, Nicholas Woodeson gives a remarkable performance, capturing the pride, vulnerability, helplessness and sadness of Loman. For all he may be the architect of his own downfall, unable to acknowledge the obvious truth, and failing to appreciate the love and devotion of a wife that transcends the material values he places so much importance in, Woodeson’s performance makes it impossible not to want a better future or a brighter past for him. George Taylor as Biff captures all the contradictions within his character, pursuing dreams that he doesn’t want to achieve until he can finally admit the truth to himself, while Tricia Kelly as wife Linda defends her husband to the hilt, recognising the small man who is worth far more than anyone realises.
Georgia Lowe’s minimalist stage design works well in allowing the action to switch between what is actually happening and the past events that continue to come into Willy’s mind. The only jarring note is the strip lighting sign proclaiming ‘Land of the Free’ that appears to be making an all too obvious point in an all too clumsy manner, particularly as the letters fade and the dream dies. That small gripe, and the use of a cordless phone in a play set in the 1940s, aside, this is a great revival of a play that continues to resonate with modern-day audiences.
Runs until 27 June 2017 then touring | Image: Manuel Harlan