There are times in York Theatre Royal’s production of Death of a Salesman when the conviction that this is the greatest of 20th century American plays is overwhelming – and what British plays can compete? Unfortunately Damian Cruden’s intelligent and workmanlike production lacks the consistency of inspiration of Arthur Miller’s text.
The production begins with a striking image, the salesman, weighed down with suitcases, standing slumped before a billboard that offers the freedom and optimism of the American Dream. The first act consists of Miller’s superb dual exposition: Willie Loman’s progress to the brink of collapse is charted simultaneously in his current troubles and in the events of 17 years previously that undermined his fragile dream of family and success. The second half then plunges Willie and his sons into an agonising series of collisions with reality.
The production skilfully negotiates the scenes poised between fact and fantasy, merging nostalgia and irony, and builds to a moving climax, but the impact is not sustained throughout the two and a half hours of stage time. Dawn Allsopp’s set doesn’t help: cluttered and messy with its multi-coloured slanty bedrooms, it becomes really evocative only in the open spaces of the past with characters dodging the washing on the line. Chris Madin’s music uses the flute and trumpet sequences demanded by Miller most effectively and adds yearning themes of longing and freedom, but is perhaps over-used.
The performances, similarly, are uneven, though never less than committed. George Costigan begins by suggesting Willie’s breakdown more in anger and resentment than self-pity, but powerfully conveys his full range of emotions, past and present, real and imagined, without suggesting that almost mythic status that Willie needs. Eileen O'Brien’s finely judged performance as Linda Loman gains strength and intensity as the play progresses.
Joseph Rye (Biff) and Kieran Hill (Happy) as the two sons reserve their best moments for the last quarter of the play, with Rye’s final scenes with both parents especially effective. Miller provides the smallest of parts with opportunities to shine, opportunities seized most successfully by Kevin McGowan (a mysterious and dignified Uncle Ben), Steven Kynman (smoothly negotiating the transformation of Bernard from wimp to hotshot lawyer) and Mitzi Thaddeus (a very convincing quick-change from Happy’s squeeze to Willy’s nemesis).
While A View from the Bridge has attracted several high-octane revivals in recent years, Death of a Salesman, in my experience at least, has fared less well in the years since Warren Mitchell’s superb Willy Loman. In the circumstances, this respectful, if unremarkable, revival is more than welcome.