Death of a Salesman comes with baggage. It is generally agreed to be one of the greatest plays of the last century and it may even be the very best. This is a double edged sword for any company who take it on. This play is capable of great things, which means that you have wonderful material to work with, but at the same time you run the risk of letting it down. If you are not up to the challenge it will find you out. I need to be clear right away that this production is as good a production of this great play as you are ever likely to see. Everybody who was involved with it can be very proud of their achievement. I have seen plenty of high quality theatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse over the years but I don’t think that I have ever seen a better production there.
Arthur Miller’s starting point when he wrote Death of a Salesman was a wish to show that tragedy doesn’t have to involve a fall from grace, in the way that the classical tradition of tragedy demands. The sufferings of Willy Loman, a flawed, self deluding and unsuccessful man who loses what little he had is just as moving as the downfall of any heroic figure and his story has a tragic dimension of its own. His wife Linda tells her sons in one of the key lines of the play “He is a human being and a terrible thing is happening to him, so attention must be paid.” This is the moral heart of the play.
Miller believed, rightly, that we all live in the past and the present simultaneously and this is what lies behind the structure of the play. He shows us what is happening inside Willy’s head alongside the present in order to explain and explore the reasons for his final breakdown. Characters and events from his past are as real to Willy as the events of the moment, and as his grasp on reality disintegrates we are slowly allowed to understand what has led him to the point where he is unable to carry on any more. It is a very poignant and clever structural device which makes the play fast moving and technically ground breaking for its time. The writing is clear as a bell, with heartfelt and naturalistic dialogue that manages to show us real people and their conflicts and sufferings as well as explore the human condition in a way that few playwrights have been able to do. Miller is able to write about human beings at the limit of their tolerance without ever descending into cliché and his grasp of human nature means that the heart of the play has hardly dated at all. We routinely describe great loss or suffering as tragic, but real tragedy can also come from a life like Willy’s; an energy sapping fight against quiet desperation and the relentlessness of everyday small sufferings and failures, the simple fight to put one foot in front of the other and carry on. This is the lot in life which many ordinary people have to face up to and in watching Willy and Linda’s struggle we can recognise our own humanity, flawed and inconsequential as it sometimes seems.
Phillip Jackson’s performance as Willy is at the centre of everything and he is magnificent. He shows us a man whose character provides little for us to admire, but as we are led into his world and he gains our sympathy we come to understand him, and forgive him. He is a stooped shambling figure, making believable the moments of honesty where he lets down his guard and is unable to keep up his self delusion, and he gives a performance of great truth. He is deeply moving, particularly in the second half, as we see him spiral downwards, desperately trying to find support from those around him. He is the architect of his own downfall, Miller leaves us in no doubt about that, but not for one second do you ever feel that he is getting what he deserves. He shows us the whole man and nothing less is going to work if you play Willy Loman.
Marian Bailey is heartbreaking as Linda Loman. She stubbornly insists on her husband’s worth and defends him against her sons, never once blaming him for the troubles of the family. She is a rock, continuing to offer him solid practical and emotional support, even when he treats her badly and his behaviour becomes irrational. She has no illusions about him or her two sons, she knows them all too well and loves them in spite of their failings, never giving up hoping that one day they may do better. There are many women like Linda, stubbornly continuing to keep a family together in the face of hardship and the character of Linda is a tribute to them. It is her tragedy as much as it is his.
The other central relationship in the play is that between Willy and his oldest son Biff, played beautifully by Lex Shrapnel. Biff is a chip off the old block, a bum who wastes his chances in exactly the same way that his father has and whose early promise has come to nothing. As the play unfolds we see the responsibility which his father has to bear for this failure. He has projected his own ambitions onto his eldest son, leaving him no way to find his own path in life. It is only a partial responsibility- the Biffs of this world will always find someone to blame- but again we forgive Biff, however difficult to like he may sometimes be, as we come to understand him. He wants to do the right thing, but the right thing is always just beyond his reach. Arthur Miller described Death of a Salesman as a love story between a father and son and between them both and America and the great scene in the second half where this love is finally recognised and painfully hammered out between them is stunning. Phillip Jackson and Lex Shrapnel are electrifying and seeing them taking Miller’s dialogue by the scruff of the neck and feeding off each other, giving us the showdown that has been so long in coming, is as good as theatre gets. The hope at the end of the play is that Biff has finally come to know himself and can now make his way independently, but that’s all it is- a hope.
Happy, Willy’s other son, played confidently by Nick Barber, is a shallow womaniser, whose tragedy is very different. He will never amount to much because underneath his superficial charm and likeability there is little there. He simply doesn’t have it in him. He will get through life by swimming around in the shallows and avoiding anything that seems difficult, never allowing himself to admit that there may be more to discover. He is a very common type, offices and companies are full of them.
There are finely judged performances from all the actors playing the minor characters. They are helped by the fact that the look of the production is pitch perfect which allows them to register quickly and make the most of the time that they have. Whether they are trying unsuccessfully to help Willy, or taking a quiet delight in seeing him go down, each of them is a real living presence, not just a device to help us understand his collapse.
The director, Sarah Esdaile, has a passion for Arthur Miller’s work and my goodness it shows. She explains in the programme that it is quite hard for a freelance director to get their hands on a play like Death of a Salesman as artistic directors will invariably say that if they were going to do it they would want to direct it themselves. I am deeply grateful that she was given the chance. She is a major talent and her understanding of the play and the clarity of her judgment shines through everything. There is great attention to detail in the staging and everything is perfectly balanced. No moment is wasted or left unclear. In particular the ending is superb. The set is moved back and we see converging tram lines stretching back into the dark, empty space of the enormous Quarry theatre, an empty road which the characters have no choice but to continue down after Willy’s burial. To add this kind of theatrical bravura to Linda Loman’s heartrending final lament for her husband without losing the intense emotional focus on the personal suffering of the character is a real tribute to Miller’s writing, as I’m sure she would have wished.
The set design by Francis O’Connor is wonderful. The play makes very specific demands on the design in order to include the fast time shifts that are necessary so there is not much opportunity for innovation, but his design grounds the play perfectly in the 1940’s, with echoes of the original production, and allows it to sing. This sense of reality is important to the play as the audience needs to be clear where they are. There is some beautiful use of back projection which helps to clarify what is happening on stage and enhance it without ever overwhelming it.
I saw this production twice, only the fifth time that I have ever done that in over 30 years of going to the theatre. It is the third time that I have seen Death of a Salesman- it was one of the first plays that I ever saw at the old Leeds Playhouse when I was still at school- and I hope that it isn’t the last. The only problem that I am going to have next time I see it is that I will be wondering why it isn’t exactly like this one.
The photographs of the cast are production stills by Keith Pattison, copyright the West Yorkshire Playhouse, used by kind permission.