Philip Jackson on family feuds and ITV3 fameDate: 27 April 2010
Other credits include hit British films Brassed Off, Little Voice and Mike Bassett.
His stage credits include The Lodger (Royal Exchange), King Lear (Royal Court) and A Midsummer Nightís Dream (RSC).
Arthur Millerís classic Death of a Salesman is considered to be one of the most important dramatic works of the 20th century. Exploring themes of rivalry, jealousy and disappointment, itís a well explored theme and one to which everyone can relate. Abundant adaptations both on the stage and the big screen have been produced, so what makes Director Sarah Esdaileís any different? Phillip Jackson, who plays the tragic hero Willy Loman, explainsÖ
So how are the rehearsals for Death of a Salesman going?
Itís going well, but it messes with your head! Weíre cracking it. Itís not easy; very, very complicated. This is our fourth week. Itís a big, long play so you need a long time to figure it out. Itís poetic the way itís written. Iíve never worked so hard in my life. Iím in nearly all the scenes so I donít get any breaks; when Iím not rehearsing Iím learning lines! Itís intensive but satisfying. The cast are amazing and everyone seemed to have immaculate American accents as soon as we started! A fantastic cast and a really good director. Our director was saying earlier that sheíd done some education stuff this week with schools and it was impossible to explain to kids how this play works without seeing it - on the page itís actually very hard to imagine how itís staged. The moment for example, when Willyís talking to somebody in reality, but also somebody from the past is in the same room, as it were. On the page you donít really know what thatís like, but when you start walking around and seeing how weird that is you realise this is someone whoís hallucinating.
How is the production being staged?
Weíre sticking very closely to the script. Weíre all convinced that Arthur Millerís a genius so everything that we put in is relevant and useful. Miller writes amazing stage directions that really help you to find out whatís going on.
What do you think of Willy Loman, your character?
Well, heís had it! Heís a complete loser! Heís gone!
I apologise here that my next question was to be whether Philip could relate to the character at all! He replies:
I can relate to him Ė very much so! Itís somebody whoís got to a point in his life when heís looking back on it and coming to the conclusion that heís failed in every area. Thatís not just in the world of being a salesman; which went well when he was younger but has gone increasingly wrong so heís very much in debt. But also in his relationship with his family, particularly his eldest son. That father/son relationship is the main thing about the play. Itís pretty epic, almost like a Greek tragedy. So really heís saying that everything heís ever done, heís done wrong Ė looking back at it, even though at the time he might have thought that it was the right thing to do... So he thinks the only conclusion is to commit suicide. Thereís a cheerful little play for you!
There is some controversy regarding the ending of the play; some critics think that Willy Loman doesnít actually commit suicide as itís not explicit that the funeral is his. What do you think?
I think in our production itíll be pretty clear whatís happened Ė I donít know whether I should give that away or not! Itís funny that Ė there are things like red herrings. One of them is that he has this gas pipe, and also that they think heís been trying to crash his car before but maybe not that successfully because heís done it on a bridge over some water thatís very shallow! So you could say that heís actually failed at committing suicide as well! The idea is that in his death heíd be leaving his family the greatest gift which would be to inherit $20,000 because of the insurance Ė which was a lot of money then.
Willy Lomanís slogan, which he lives by, is ďanything is possible as long as you are well liked.Ē Do you agree with that?
His philosophy is that itís not what you say, itís how you say it. If youíre popular and can tell people lots of jokes and make them feel comfortable with you they will always look after you. ďBe liked and you will never wantĒ is another of his phrases. This is something that he teaches his sons; but of course itís a load of rubbish. That doesnít work because partly as you get older, the young people coming in are going to be more popular than you are. Itís sort of based on this American dream thing Ė popularity wins the day. Itís sad because I think Willy was normally a quite witty guy when he was younger. As you get older you run out of steam.
Willy Loman seeks validation from others to affirm his own self-esteem. Do you feel like this in your life?
We all like to be liked Ė youíre not going to go out of your way to be deliberately unpleasant or make yourself unpopular. There is a lot of this in the flashback parts of the play where the next door neighbour Bernard, who is a bit of a swot, is made fun of because heís always studying. He turns out to be the most successful of all of them when he becomes a lawyer in the Supreme Court. Thatís the moral of the play really; that working hard is not for losers.
Can you give me a brief synopsis of the story?
Itís basically about a family; a mother, father and two sons. Itís a family saga about where their relationships have gone wrong and how the fatherís overwhelming domination of the two boys and his wife has ruined their lives. You see that by going back to episodes in the past which heís imagining, so I think that anybody who has a family will relate in some way to something in the play. Itís very universal. Sometimes itíll trigger things that youíve forgotten, or not thought of as particularly significant when you were kid. Iím not saying people will be coming out of the theatre slashing their wrists; there are some jokes. I donít want everyone to think itís a complete tragedy without any light moments. Theyíll just feel recognition and connect with it as itís a play about real people and their lives. I can certainly relate to it a lot.
Death of a Salesman is described as one of the most important plays in the 20th century. Many people will have seen productions of it before. What makes this one different?
Although itís a bit of a classic, weíd encourage the audience not to think about other productions. As far as weíre concerned, weíre doing it for the first time, as if itís not been done before. Weíre not really influenced; weíre starting from scratch. But obviously ours will be better than all the other ones!
So tell us about Philip Jackson; who are you and what have you done before?
Well most people go on about this Poirot thing, how I was Chief Inspector Japp, but I actually havenít done that for nearly ten years. Because of ITV3, itís shown a lot there all the time, so I canít seem to get away from it! I mean literally all the time, virtually every day. I donít watch it, but I think a lot of people do. But thatís not the only thing Iíve done; I did a lot of theatre, TV, a few films Ė Brassed Off, Little Voice, High Hopes. I donít do a lot of theatre these days so this is quite a big number to do.
What are your plans after Death of a Salesman?
Iím doing another film in Iceland. I did a film there a few years ago called Little Trip to Heaven. Well I hope Iíll be doing it Ė if the volcano stops!
- Philip Jackson was speaking to Ruth Kilner
Death of a Salesman is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds from 30th April to 29th May. For ticket information go to www.wyp.org.uk