Arthur Miller’s majestic, moody masterpiece is, at its centre, a psychological portrait of a salesman as an old man, reflecting on his life, work, family, hopes, regrets and broken dreams. The first scene sees Willy Loman walk down the side of the Stalls with two heavy suitcases, stepping on stage, arriving home to his wife Linda and two sons, after a week on the road.
The setting is the Loman family home, New York, 1949, a time of regeneration and renewed hope in post war America. The minimalist staging is simple but effective with a huge fridge, kitchen table and chairs (which adapts seamlessly into an office and a Restaurant), and a double bed. Above the high scaffolding structure of stairs and sliding doors is a neon sign, Land of the Free.
Exhausted after his long drive, he sits on the bed struggling to take of his shoes, while his wife Linda fusses over him wanting to make him a snack - she has bought a new invention, whipped cheese in a can. But Willy quickly snaps back, “I don't want change, I want Swiss cheese!”
Food in the (frequently broken) Fridge is a source of worry, as it was purchased on the never- never, along with the washing machine, car and the mortgage, as they go over the bills to be paid and Willy’s steadily decreasing sales commission.
Having to support their two sons - although both are in their early thirties - is another burden. Biff, aged 34 has just returned from working on a ranch in Texas, feeling lost and uncertain of his future. Happy (Harold) is indeed a happy-go –lucky guy, plodding along in a dead end job. Willy, whose father deserted him as a child, believes he does not know how to bring up and guide his wayward sons to pursue a rich and rewarding life.
The life and times of Willy Loman and his family, past and present is punctuated by flashbacks such as recalling his entrepreneurial brother Ben who travelled to Alaska to find oil and Africa to dig for diamonds. “ The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle and comes out, the age of twenty-one, and he's rich.”
Small and stocky in stature, Nicholas Woodeson plays Loman as a proud, pugnacious man with a gentle heart and broad smile, joking with his tall, sporty boys and teasing his friend and neighbour, Charley over a game of cards. Yet, a quiet, dark mood flickers behind his eyes, hiding his true sense of despair and demoralisation.
Willy lives in the past, the golden years of career success and who still believes “the man who creates personal interest is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want."
But that’s not the way forward in a modern climate of hard nosed financial sharks and smart suited lawyers, like Charley’s high flying son Bernard.
On the 50th anniversary of “Death of a Salesman” in 1999, in an interview in the New Yorker, Arthur Miller describes Loman’s character as “Failure in the face of surrounding success. He was the ultimate climber up the ladder who was constantly being stepped on. My empathy for him was immense.”
Imaginatively directed by Abigail Graham through painterly, Hopper-esque vignettes, the a fast paced, evolving narrative evokes a searing poignancy as we see Loman’s gradual fall from grace, his hunched shoulders showing his age and personal defeat. Left behind at home, Linda’s domain is the kitchen, doing the laundry, making coffee, breakfast eggs and darning her stockings – women’s dream of glamorous silk stockings is a recurring motif. In her faded blue jeans, dowdy blouse and cardigan, the down-trodden wife and mother dotes on Willy and her sons.
Linda’s deep love and respect for Willy is illustrated in a blisteringly emotional scene from Tricia Kelly, when she accuses the boys of not showing respect for their father. She abhors their carefree, careless attitude, with no gratitude for the work, driving hundreds of miles to support his family: “Be loving to him” she pleads to them, “Because he’s only a little boat looking for a harbor.”
Meanwhile, Loman has to confront the truth of his situation, demanding that Howard, his boss, allow him to quit the travel and work in New York. His usual mask expressing a mild demeanour is stripped off when he explodes with anger, “You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away - a man is not a piece of fruit.”
The poetic rhythm of Miller’s cool, colloquial dialogue is beautifully enhanced through the dramatic ebb and flow of the action, as it delves deeper into Loman’s close yet strained relationships with family and friends; his life is haunted by a lingering jealousy of his brother Ben, which clouds his own thwarted ambition.
Kindly, endearing and loving in character, he is reminiscent of the Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz" showing his weakness to stand up for himself. He is full of contradictions, changing his stance on everything, his head in the sand, terrified of facing the honest truth.
Performances from the small cast are impressively astute, with notable strong acting from George Taylor as Biff as a teenager and then as an angry young man, Geff Francis as the gruff bear-like Charley, and Michael Walters as Bernard from nerdy student to High Court barrister.
Dominating the stage throughout, Nicholas Woodeson ultimately portrays Willy Loman as a contemporary King Lear. His two estranged sons, Biff and Happy don’t exactly betray him but have been let down by a less than fatherly figure who does not seem to fully grasp how he has failed them, filling their heads with false hope and phoney dreams. As Biff admits towards the end of the play, his father didn’t know who he was.
Just as it was viewed in 1949 as a Pulitzer award-winning modern classic, this visually stunning production shows how the tale of Willy Loman, an Everyman, is as powerful and pertinent today amid the radical global change in society, finance, business and politics. The Land of the Free and the pursuit of the American Dream is even more elusive than ever.
Tuesday 20 - Saturday 24 June, 2017