Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford – until 8 July 2017
You can never tire of Arthur Miller’s great elegy to the ordinary working man, crushed by the system, Death of a Salesman (1949).
Written, as writes Christopher Bigsby (the Miller authority on such matters), `on the edge of the post-war boom’, Miller earned few friends with his eloquent homage to those who toil but like Büchner’s Woyzeck find themselves squeezed dry until, at the last, they rebel violently, in Miller’s case, self destructively.
Seeing Northampton’s Royal & Derngate production almost at the end of its tour in the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre – such a lovely theatre now, clearly well cherished locally and a perfect space for a play that is intimate and epic – you have to applaud a cast whose early days must have been testing in the extreme. Billed as a starring Tim Pigott Smith in the role of the Lear-like Willy Loman, Pigott-Smith was suddenly struck down. At short notice, Nicholas Woodeson stepped in.
How the rest of the cast including Tricia Kelly as Willy’s ultra-loyal, wife, Linda (brought in also at short notice after Pigott Smith’s wife, cast to play Linda, had to withdraw from injury), George Taylor and Ben Deery as Willy’s two sons, Biff and Happy, and the production’s director, Abigail Graham, coped with it all is a minor miracle in itself.
The fact that their touring production stands comparison with two far grander recent productions – the RSC’s 2015 production with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter, and twelve years ago, Robert Falls’ acclaimed Chicago production with Brian Dennehy and Clare Higgins – is a tribute not only to their talent but to their professionalism.
Abigail Graham’s production is not only fleeter of foot but finds the play’s heart and soul with casting that is pitch perfect and in a setting by designer Georgia Lowe of parapet and grey walls that suggests high rise and tenements rather than attempting to graphically realise them.
Miller was ahead of his time in trying to demonstrate past and present going on in Willy’s mind simultaneously. Often in productions, it can produce clunky flashback time sequences. But Graham leaves it to Woodeson and her cast to make the bridge with the aid of a few shadowy figures outlined against perspex sliding panels.
Woodeson is tremendous, a pugnacious fighter of a man but a fantasist, as proud of his salesman `contacts’ and `being liked’ as he is of raising sons in the American image of masculinity.
The `Land of the Free’, emblazoned across the back of the stage, speaks down the years, as pertinent in its irony now as in 1949. Miller saw, presciently and compassionately, how the American `macho’ economic and cultural ethic running through his society was as dangerous as it was deceitful.
And in the knock-down, truth-telling second half, George Taylor as the flawed but honest Biff expresses the full force of Miller’s attempt to take the scales from American as well as Willy’s eyes.
There is magnificent support from Tricia Kelly as Linda, the wife colluding with her husband’s dreams and romanticism out of fiercely protective love. But every moment of Miller’s intense family drama is clearly defined even the tiny bit-part female roles of Willy’s on-the-road mistress and the two `girls’ picked up by Ben Deery’s bragging Happy, only too `happy’ to go along with convention.
Northampton’s Royal & Derngate, Graham and her cast have done Miller proud.
The production is dedicated to Tim Pigott-Smith. They have done him proud, too.