It is easy these days to forget how ground-breaking Arthur Miller was in his heyday. Hell, it’s easy to forget that Death of a Salesman was written in 1949. It seems to have some timeless quality to it, quite apart from being about as influential as it gets in twentieth century theatre. His points seem like old news to a 2017 audience, but in 1949 – four years post-war, and two decades post-Wall Street Crash – it must have been a phenomenon. In 1949, stories like Willy Loman’s weren’t often told.
Which begs the question: why now? What in 2017 could possibly have produced this spate of productions of Death of a Salesman, a story about a mildly delusional New York patriarch, who spends the first half of the show explaining to everyone how well-known and well-liked he is, and the second half unravelling at great speed and ruining the lives of the people around him? I’m being facetious, of course. There is a certain type of man whose number Arthur Miller has unequivocally got, and he doesn’t pull his punches. On that basis, there’s very definitely an up-to-the-minute point to be made here. Which makes it rather disappointing that director Abigail Graham doesn’t seem terribly interested in making it.
This is Death of a Salesman straight down the line: set in an ambiguous decade, the only nod to modernity being the neon banner ironically declaring “LAND OF THE FREE” – the most eye-catching part of Georgia Lowe’s otherwise understated set. It’s a character study of Willy Loman, played intelligently and sympathetically by Nicholas Woodeson, and of the various other members of his family who shift and bend to accommodate him.
The most interesting characters, for my money, are Linda, Willy’s long-suffering and even-longer-enabling wife played with great depth by Tricia Kelly; and Biff (George Taylor), the unsatisfied and flighty son who knows there’s something wrong with his life but seems unable or unwilling to fix it. Both are well observed, but there’s a reason they in particular are interesting – there are new things to be said about them, if only the production would try to say them. And that’s the issue that runs through the whole production: to resonate with audiences in 2017 demands a different focus than for audiences sixty years ago. Here, it feels like a missed opportunity.
For what it is, which is the story of a tight-knit family slowly imploding, Death of a Salesman is well-executed and compelling. But there are so many brilliant playwrights – and so excellent many plays – in the world, that Miller really does need to earn his keep. So why Death of a Salesman in 2017? There are plenty of possible answers to that question. I wish I’d been given one.
Photos courtesy of Manuel Harlan.
Death of a Salesman runs at the King’s Theatre until Saturday 24th June.