What’s really important in life, and what’s the best way to achieve it? Northampton Royal & Derngate Theatres pose these uncomfortable questions in their haunting production of Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Death of Salesman. Written in 1949, it focuses on the searingly commonplace tragedy of ageing, exhausted travelling salesman Willy Loman, as he travels the final stretch of a road he was always assured ended in success.
Nicholas Woodeson is in absolute control during his portrayal of the desperate, confused and beleaguered Willy. By turn childlike and authoritarian, sympathetic and unlikeable, he evokes pity, dismay, revulsion and a creeping sense of solidarity in the audience. His vulnerability makes us ache, his explosive anger makes us jump, and his pedestrian weaknesses put me at least in a mild panic about my own shortcomings as a parent, a provider, and a human being. Tricia Kelly as his wife Linda is powerful and pitiable – hamstrung by an unshakeable loyalty which binds her to her husband’s path of self-destructive optimism. She’s portrayed as an admirable woman because she embraces a traditionally supportive role – for all the good it does her. Their two sons, Biff and Happy (George Taylor and Ben Deery), are robust and convincing, moving comfortably between their roles as hopeful boys and disappointed adults, at once endearing and obnoxious.
The pivotal relationship between Willy and Biff is exquisitely portrayed, and Taylor’s tortured performance of a conflicted son is deeply affecting. Domestic tensions, moving to arguments, punctuated by deathly silences and occasionally breaking into fights, keep the audience on edge. The odd wince and gasp was heard as new fuel was poured on the flames of family discord, and at each new height of filial ingratitude.
Credit must go to designer Georgia Lowe and lighting designer Matt Haskins for a set which is evocatively cramped while still allowing fluidity of action and an easy interplay between scenes of past and present, as Willy’s immediate environment and memories collide. Above the set the words ‘Land of the free’ are picked out in tube lighting. It’s a bold but effective device, which seems a little heavy-handed at first, but does give a nod to a neon-lit background of urban poverty, and which, as the play progresses, flickers and crackles and loses power to mirror the tensely charged atmosphere and decaying hopes and dreams below.
Director Abigail Graham has done an admirable job on the American dream, raising questions about the claustrophobia of expectation in a world where betrayal is a routine consequence of people seeking their own path, and where loyalty to a cause can be at the expense of ones very self. At its heart, Death of a Salesman is perhaps a play about family obligations: not just those of the nuclear family, but those of the parental nation to the citizen children who put their trust in its promises. These twin themes make for a potent assault on the watcher’s peace of mind, as the representation is simultaneously of something distant and symbolic, and of something utterly personal and deeply rooted: the debt of love to family and the desire for security and freedom. This production, tight, simple but imaginative and very well cast, brings out these themes in all their suffocating glory, in a cautionary fable about setting style above substance.
This isn’t the lightest of nights out, but it’s intense, rewarding, and very well realised.