They say good things come to those who wait… Originally we had tickets to see this on 13th April, but, as you no doubt are aware gentle reader, everything was cancelled due to the sad and unexpected death of Tim Pigott-Smith, who was to play Willy Loman. I can only admire the tenacity and integrity of the cast and creative team for rescuing the production from the jaws of tragedy and creating such a brilliant phoenix to rise from the ashes of a terrible mixed metaphor on my part. The performance is dedicated to Tim Pigott-Smith, whom I only saw on stage once, ten years ago, playing Henry Higgins in Pygmalion at the Oxford Playhouse and damn good he was too.
I’ve also only seen Death of a Salesman once before, back in 1979 at the National Theatre with Warren Mitchell as Willy Loman. I remember it like it was yesterday, and as you can imagine, Warren Mitchell was all kinds of special. But I do also remember that the production itself was a little iffy; I didn’t believe the characterisations of Biff and Happy at all, and by trying to use up all the large Lyttelton stage, it just all felt a bit thin. No such problem here, with this magnificent production by Abigail Graham, where all Willy’s hopes and aspirations, his past and present relationships with his wife and his sons, his humiliating dismissal by his boss, and his sordid little affair all take place inside a claustrophobic boxed set, which really emphasises what a little person Willy Loman is. The lights may proclaim “Land of the Free”, in homage to Willy’s pursuit of the American Dream, but they have a tendency to short-circuit and fail; and when the Lomans are finally “free” – of their biggest debt of all, the mortgage – Linda’s there to endure it on her own.
Like many others, I read it at school; and judging from the number of (very well-behaved) students in the Royal last night, it’s not going to be leaving the syllabus any time soon. You couldn’t describe it as Arthur Miller’s masterpiece; but it’s a very fine piece of writing nonetheless and in Willy Loman he created a memorable figure of the little cog in the big wheel, who regrettably deludes himself into thinking he’s a much bigger cog. A mass of self-contradictions (“Biff is a lazy bum!” “one thing about Biff – he’s not lazy”); blind to the faults of his beloved older son (indolence, kleptomania, law-breaking); ignoring the approaches of his younger son (“I’m losing weight, you notice, Pop?”); intolerant of his wife Linda’s interjections, biting the hand that feeds him, sucking up to a system that has destroyed him, and living up to the maxim that it isn’t enough to be liked, you have to be well-liked – Willy Loman is one helluva creation.
Older son Biff, too, is a chip off the old block, although both of them would absolutely deny it. A fantasist, chasing the American Dream in his own, more lethargic way, envisioning a world where he and Hap can work together without actually having to work. Whereas Willy would go away for weeks on end selling as hard as he could, Biff would rather get up late and cross his fingers. They all want the trappings of the American Dream, but only Willy spends his life actively trying to achieve it; and largely failing, as all the HP payments on the various household items seem to be in a constant state of arrears. Happy will go along with anything so long as there are girls involved.
If there was ever any doubt that Nicholas Woodeson’s performance as Willy would be under some kind of Tim Pigott-Smith shadow, that doubt is cleared within one nanosecond of Mr Woodeson struggling home from a terrible day at work, through the auditorium, up the stairs, and pausing before walking on to the stage. He immediately grabs our attention and doesn’t let go for the next three hours. Railing against the injustices of the world, this Willy is very realistic, very true-to-life; his flights of fancy and his excursions into reminiscence come across as the early stages of dementia. With the small enclosed set, there’s nowhere for these vivid flashbacks to go other than right in our faces, making them seem even more like reality and less like mere memories. This Willy Loman is visibly captivated by the romance of the American Dream; when his sons outline a possible plan his eyes slowly light up and widen as he grasps the hope it offers with all his mettle. When the grandeur inevitably gives way to the inconsequent, he barks his bitterness furiously like an abused dog. It’s a fantastic performance; very powerful, incredibly moving, totally pathetic (in the best meaning of the word).
Watching George Taylor’s performance as Biff made me realise this was the first time I’d really appreciated quite how damaged the character is. He suffers mental fallout following his unfortunate dropping in on his dad and Miss Francis in a hotel in Boston in a beautifully played scene by Connie Walker, refusing to go anywhere without her new nylons, and Mr Taylor, dumbstruck into almost a coma of confusion. Mr Taylor looks like the great American hope with his football prowess and his Uni of Virginia trainers, but strip a layer of veneer away and he’s just the sad case waiting five hours at Bill Oliver’s office without hope of recognition. Mr Taylor takes you on Biff’s journey of self-realisation; you hope it’s not all self-delusion but when it so obviously is, he makes you appreciate what a straightforward no-hoper Biff is. I thought he was superb.
Tricia Kelly’s Linda is long-suffering, optimistic, and above all, undemanding of any real attention from her husband. When he returns at the beginning of the play, she neither offers nor expects any warmth from him; yet she remains completely loyal to him throughout, in sharp contrast to his affair which we assume she never finds out about. I very much enjoyed her scenes with the sons when she finally starts to bite back at them for their thoughtlessness. Ben Deery is excellent as Happy, always the sidekick in the younger days, now the debonair smoothie setting up the girls for a night on the town. All the minor roles were very well performed, particularly the aforementioned Connie Walker, all barely concealed sexual naughtiness, and Thom Tuck as the self-centred Howard, droning on about his family voice recordings and dismissing Willy without a thought.
A superb production – and a true testament to the idea that the show must go on. It’s halfway through its tour at the moment, with Edinburgh, Truro, Guildford and Oxford still to come. A must-see.
P. S. “So how did he die?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle as we walked home afterwards. “Well, he…” I replied, but then stopped short. I cast my mind back. Actually, how did he die? He seemed to just stop, and drop. Heart attack? Arthur Miller has him driving hell-for-leather into a crash in the goddam Studebaker, but there was none of that here. But somehow it doesn’t matter. You know Willy’s going to die from the moment you first read the first word of the title. That’s no surprise. The production takes the deliberate view that how Willy dies is the least important thing in his story. And I’m rather inclined to agree.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan