King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – until 24 June 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
A quiet profundity burns at the heart of the Royal and Derngate, Northampton’s touring production of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman at the King’s. Largely eschewing the showy and portentous, it is anchored by a couple of outstanding performances.
Miller’s 1949 depiction of the ageing, failing salesman Willy Loman as he struggles to comes to terms with the death of his dreams – and perhaps of The American Dream itself – has only gained in stature over the years. What some regarded as a merely a Marxist- derived critique of the US way of life has come to seem as much like high tragedy as anything English-speaking theatre has produced in the last century.
There are particular resonances now, of course, with Loman’s belief that nothing is as important as a slick, confident operator who can strike a deal chiming with the horrendous bunch of delusional mancubs in power currently in the US – to say nothing of the extraordinary language of horse-trading that seems to dominate coverage of the UK’s exit from the EU.
Perhaps these parallels would have been even more strongly reinforced by the production’s original casting, but the sad passing of Tim Pigott-Smith on the eve of the tour meant that Nicholas Woodeson had to take over the part at extremely short notice.
Woodeson has an altogether different presence, but is thoroughly impressive in the role, shining particularly in the moments of frustration from the hangdog, underdog everyman. It is very much a slow-burning portrayal, notably strongest in its quietest moments.
The same could be said for Tricia Kelly as his wife Linda. Kelly also had to step in to the tour at the last minute, and she plays the long-suffering Linda as a figure of still, dignified certainty and steadfast emotion.
George Taylor and Ben Deery, as their sons Biff and Happy, are noticeably more convincing as the older, more browbeaten versions of the characters than as their more ebullient teenage selves.
There is a decided tendency to present some of the minor characters on the broad side, particularly when Michael Walters plays neighbour Bernard as a boy – although this does present an interesting contrast with his older version of the same character.
Some of the other parts are more like slightly forced comic cameos. Interestingly, this does not apply to Thom Tuck, best known as a comedian, who imbues both Loman’s boss Raymond and Stanley the waiter with real depth in a short space of time. It certainly does not apply to Geff Francis, whose Charley (Bernard’s father) has genuine physical and moral heft.
There is a delicacy and realism to Abigail Graham’s direction, with the transitions between past and present deftly handled. Unfortunately, some of this is undercut by Georgia Lowe’s design. The towering box of a set works fine, but the huge neon sign reading ‘LAND OF THE FREE’ – which dominates the stage from the moment the Loman boys are discovered lying on it at the opening – is clunkily prosaic. And – guess what? During the play various letters on the sign fizzle and go out, which is probably meant to be symbolic but ends up just being daft.
Similarly, there is a moment of physical theatre towards the end that seems tacked on, half-hearted and at odds with what has gone before. Where this production really shines is in its presentation of the domestic and the quotidian, of those relationships that are too easily taken for granted by those who spend their life, as Willy Loman does, chasing the wrong dream.