“Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller stops off at The King’s Theatre in Edinburgh this week and gives weary travelling salesman Willy Loman (Nicholas Woodeson) somewhere to rest his hat and sample cases for a while before moving on to the next stop on the touring road.
Few written works of the 20th century have the iconic reputation of this 1949 play - it was the recipient of the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play.Â The core elements of this story are timeless, and in a contemporary world still dealing with the effects of the global collapse of banks and financial institutions of recent years, is as relevant today as it was when written.
“Death of a Salesman” is a dialogue driven theatrical work that has to convey not only the physical state of Willy Loman, but also his increasingly fragile mental state as his mind shifts constantly from what is happening now to events of long ago.Â The cast â€“ his family, wife Linda (Tricia Kelly), sons Happy (Ben Deery) and Biff (George Taylor), and those around him Charley (Geff Francis) and Charlie’s son Bernard (Michael Walters) must also fluidly shift in and out of these memory time frames, and that in itself is a huge problem for any director to achieve on stage.Â Ben Loman â€“ Willy’s older brother played by Mitchell Mullen also has to move in and out of these increasingly overlapping time sequences.Â Â This work is a slice of mundane life where nothing much really happens in anyone’s life â€“ no big theatrical stage performances, everything is very low key, and if like me you enjoy this style of story and performance then this is a masterpiece of story telling and the use of the English language.Â If you like your theatre trips to have more “highlights” then this might not be the production for you.
Nicholas Woodeson is a very good Willy Loman and he understands that his character is just worn out from a lifetime on the road and chasing “The American Dream” and the “Secret of Success”.Â Both always seem to elude him, forever just out of his grasp, so Willy invests to a large extent his lost dreams and hopes into his two sons dreaming that they will “come good”.Â Nothing of course ever works out as it should and the Loman family is far from a happy one.
Tricia Kelly is an interesting counterpart in her role as Linda Lomanâ€¦no, the financial dreams of wealth and security have not worked out for her, but that really does not matter that much to her, she loves Willy Loman, success or not, and sadly Willy never recognises this fact.Â This constant difference in perception is interesting to watch.
There are for some reason though elements here that just don’t come together for me here.Â Â Ben Deery and George Taylor have all the words that sons Biff and Happy require, but something is just not connecting with me in the dynamics between the brothers and their parents (and vice versa). I am left a little cold and uncaring as to what happens to anyone here; perhaps part of that is the starkness of the set, it simply is not drawing me into the world of Willy and his family.Â I do however recognise the practicalities of having to design a set that allows for fluid movement of characters playing different events in the mind of Willy.
Whatever the set though, and however the characters make you feel, the words that we are working with here will always shine through, and even in the bleakness of this story there are some great humour lines.
“Death of a Salesman” is a work on so many levels, and is probably more relevant today than ever as the once great flames of “The American Dream” have for many died away and are little more now than the last burning embers of a fire.
Review by Tom King