Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer-winning play is a powerful tragedy of the everyman, as travelling salesman Willy Loman’s crippling belief in the American Dream is exposed as corrosive, and his mantra “Be well liked and you will never want” is shown to be an ultimately contradictory notion.
Much like in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, strains of the surreal bubble to the surface in Death of a Salesman, but Miller gives Willy’s subconscious greater prominence; interspersed with the present-day action, a small history of his hopes is played out in scenes where Willy plays ball with his sons Biff and Happy, and converses with wife Linda as a younger woman.
The creeping decline of Willy's life is painfully painted by a nuanced, authentic performance from Philip Jackson. He captures the flailing, helpless gestures of an aging man trapped by blind belief in the founding ideals of American endeavour, from the weary set of his shoulders, to the trace of shaking limbs as he raises his arms to beckon at figures onstage which don’t actually exist.
Willy’s son Biff, “lazy” as he constantly berates him, is played with earnest frustration by Lex Shrapnel, his thirty-four-year old character’s roving, restless spirit trapped once more in the four walls of the family home. Nick Barber is a slimmer, darker haired version of Biff, shifting from the petulant eagerness of a second son and younger brother, to the sleaze of a city boy with slicked back hair and a cocky grin. Matriarch of the family Linda Loman, played with heart-aching stoicism by Marion Bailey, is powerless in a sea of male aspiration, infidelity and incompetence.
Under Sarah Esdaile’s direction, returning to the Playhouse after her work on His Dark Materials and The Grouch, moments of high kitchen-table tension are choreographed superbly. We see Biff’s frustration at his father’s dismissive attitude towards Linda, Hap’s giddy attempts to appease all parties seem suitably fruitless and Linda’s stationary position behind a chair, twisting her hands, all create fine tableaux from scene to scene.
Francis O’Connor’s set piece is plotted by beds: there are the childhood singles that visiting sons Biff and Happy return to as older men; the double marital bed of Linda’s and Willy’s; even the set itself looks like a bed, a curtain hung from the upper level of the Loman house falling like a folded valance. This curtain also serves as a backdrop from behind which silhouettes are cast, another dreamlike element neatly emphasising Willy’s shadowy grasp of the present.
The surreal quality of his dreams is enhanced by the excellent lighting design of Chris Davey, which shifts in brightness and shade to bring the audience from the ‘real-time’ events of Willy’s life, into his hallucinations of past events, and back again smoothly. Simon Slater has created a sound track with depth and subtly, most remarkably the eerie, piping notes of live flute-playing from a bowler-hat clad gentleman.
Esdaile’s Death of Salesman is a thriving theatrical amalgamation of multimedia, with the evocative, grainy black and white video projections (courtesy of Mic Pool) cast on the roof-shaped screen suspended above the stage adding an Imitating the Dog-style technical slant to the proceedings.
This modern dimension furnishes Miller’s post-war classic with a powerful impact. As the entire set piece slides off into the darkness for the final scene, the simplicity of the stark strip of the highway that we’re left contemplating in all its symbolism, that relentlessly dominated Willy’s life, is impressive.