Nicholas Woodeson as Willy Loman. Pictures: Manuel Harlan

Death of a Salesman

Malvern Theatres


The American Dream has taken a bit of a bashing of late. Ronald Reagan perhaps revived it – at least a sense of self-worth - a conservative answer to the Democrats’ FDR.

George Bush junior pricked it by his war obsession. Obama looked the golden boy in the primaries, but with hands tied and universal healthcare – surely a dream if there ever was one – stymied by the hostile majority in Congress, rather wilted.

Now with Trump, a successful businessman, but an unpredictable commander in chief, it will either return or get strangled again.

Willy Loman (read low-man?) bought in to the American Dream. He may have had ambitions to rise higher in life, but he has settled for an ostensibly safe income, and when first dimished in salary then dispensed with – after 24 years - even dreams of going it alone.

When Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman (presumably in 1948 – it premiered on Broadway in February 1949 with Lee J. Cobb in the main role) there must have been hopes galore that, four years after the war in Europe and the Far East, America would be on the up.

Consumer goods sold in their millions (the Russian Communists toyed with the same idea), The new fridge, television, Chevrolet, even garden mower could be a sign of affluence to flaunt.

Willy, from down-on-its-luck Brooklyn, New York, was not alone. He, it has been said, stands for literally ‘millions of white collar employees who outlived their corporate usefulness.’ Part of the American nightmare – the capitalist horror – is to be dropped; to be shed; to be sacked. It eats into your sense of self-worth, and in Loman’s case, it threatens his very sanity

This touring production initiated by the Royal and Derngate, Northampton still has half a dozen venues to visit: Exeter, Northampton, Edinburgh, Truro, Guildford and Oxford, where it concludes on Saturday 15 July.

The ghastly irony is that plans began with the death of the real Salesman. Tim Piggott-Smith, one of the absolute stars of British Theatre, died suddenly just as rehearsals were getting under way. His loss is disastrous to the UK stage, but it was nearly curtains for this planned production.

Happy and Biff

Ben Deery and George Taylor as Willy's sons Happy and Biff 

Yet it survived, thanks to Nicholas Woodeson taking over the role. He’s got the hopelessness of Willy Loman to a ‘T’: the inability to interact meaningfully with a caring, understanding if long-suffering wife (Tricia Kelly, a quietly expressive reading), with his two contrasting grown-up sons, and doubtless with his bosses and work colleagues – insofar as a wandering salesman has any – as well.

He has some personality: we are reminded that he has enjoyed some success in selling, has – or had - a charm, a way of winning clients over. But what we see is the fading years: it’s all falling away. And are we ever told what he’s selling?

Is Woodeson strong enough for the role? And, one is bound to ask, is the role big enough for Woodeson? Abigail Graham’s production is scrupulously true to Miller’s original – even eschewing some of the cuts which cry out to be made in this lengthy unfolding. The set is simple: the Loman household is not over-endowed with the latest middle-class luxuries. This is a serviceable, very acceptable touring production. But it has to be admitted that the play feels – dare one say this about Miller, and about a stagework that has been hailed as one of the masterpieces of the 20th century – dated?

The by now ‘old’ boys, the two sons, played with equal competence by George Taylor (Biff, the older brother and the more important part; John Malkovitch played him – superbly – in the film version with Dustin Hoffman as Willy), looking mildly like a young Damien Lewis, and Ben Deery as Happy, the younger brother with fewer lines, some of them reconciliatory, but slightly, I felt, at key moments, the better performer. He has some RSC experience. Does the conflict of generations work? Somehow not. The issues regarding 20-something grown-ups in increasing opposition to their dad don’t ring as true as if they were teenagers, even, say 18 and 19.

Biff, an ace school/college sportsman, is supposed to have failed at his job-seeking, only doubling his father’s disillusion: the lad has not made good. Happy’s passivity makes him feel younger anyway. But to introduce teenagers might have given the play more thrust, and given, for example, mother more to do. All My Sons involves two key lads in their early twenties, but somehow works better, because George Deever there is the Greek Tragedy nemesis.

willy and Charley

Nicholas Woodeson as Willy with Geff Francis as neighbour Charley 

These grown-up boys (of course to Willy and Linda they will aways be boys) are observers, interrupters, moderators, of the action, and they fail to read the runes correctly. Have they narrowly avoided 1943 call-up? They must, I guess, be just one generation behind. A bit of war thrown into the mix might have enhanced the dialectic of what seemed here a marginally plodding play.

One admires Woodeson as an actor. I remember seeing him as Shakespeare’s King John in Deborah Warner’s production at the RSC’s The Other Place some three decades ago: superb play, and a gripping performance. He was an RSC stalwart, as he had been in the earlier golden years of the Liverpool Everyman. In Stephen Daldry’s Broadway/London production of J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls he was terrific. And in Conspiracy, the Branagh film about the Wannsee conference – when the details of the Final Solution were hammered out - he was again marvellous.

So he does evil nicely; but delusion, abstraction, mental decline here not quite as well. Woodeson came into the role late, after all, and if one looked for variety, more layers, more specific undertow in the role, it may have been down to Miller, not the actor.

Certain things did not help him. The set (Georgia Lowe), most of the time, was the same. One longed for the front placed table to be twisted into a different angle, or angles. At last it happened – but too late.

The clothes scarcely changed: the outfit we see Biff and Happy in after their initial upstairs bedroom parley is unchanged. True to life, one might say. But this is theatre, and some concession to the eye would have helped. Woodeson is left in his very ordinary suit the whole time. The only changes are when he lowers his tie to half mast, and when for a few seconds puts on a hat. It ain’t good enough.

I think the music (Giles Thomas) and the Lighting (Matt Haskins) worked well enough. The accents (Martin McKellan) were OK. Nothing to frighten the horses, however. One heard English American, not specific enough Brooklyn American.

Interestingly, some of the best moments came from the extras – musclers in on the dangerously decluded world of Willy, and rather good ones. Mitchell Mullan as Willy’s brother Ben – now dead – managed what Miller wanted: to be both normal and ghostly at the same time.


I wonder what role he had in Peter Hall’s UK/US As You Like It. Or in The Canterville Ghost – was that a practice for Hamlet’s dad, or for Ben here? Somehow Willy’s exchanges with Ben – evidence of his craziness, of course (or is it normality?) – brought out some of the best from both. You felt that if Ben were really alive, maybe the tragic end might have been avoided.

Willy’s one ally is neighbour Charley (Miller likes neighbours). The neighbours are black – not I think specified – and this adds something. It is Charley (the hugely experienced Geff Francis) who reaches into his pocket to bail Willy out of his debts, and is a straight-as-a-dye good bloke, neighbourly and congenial, with a nice gentle dense of humour.

Charley has clawed his way upwards in a way Willy hasn’t. We meet his son, Bernard (Michael Walters) as an excitable, short-trousered teenager, leaping around the place like a jack-in-a-box; and then reappearing as a hugely successful young lawyer, stiff, formal, talented and besuited (a change of costume at last).. It was difficult not to find Walters’ performance the best, certainly the most entertaining, of the evening.

One thing about the film, and as I remember about Warren Mitchell’s 1996 UK TV version as Willy Loman, was that we heard a lot of external noises. Meaning mostly car noises. It becomes almost a Leitmotif. Willy, after all, is on the road on and off, even all the time normally, and the car will figure large in the denouement. Possibly Graham was trying to avoid a copycat version; but that would actually have been preferable. This staging was played out in a domestic vacuum: there is no outside.

The danger was claustrophobia, valid enough – even arguably an asset - in this mentally frozen situation (Willy’s head is closed in on itself); but arguments aside, kit can make for weak, even dull, theatre. There weren’t enough things going on in this staging apart from Miller’s text. And Miller – in A View from the Bridge, let alone The Crucible – leaves spaces; leave room for interpretation. THAT’s what makes his plays so great: the Greek Tragedies of our age. Cling to the text alone, however worthily, and you get – well, not very far.

The end was tedious. We learn little of Willy’s demise, and that despite a theatrically imbecilic aftermath in which the main characters reflect on why it was and how things were or will be. It’s as bad as the similar scene in Richard Attenborough’s Arnhem film A Bridge Too Far, with Fox, Bogarde, Hackman and co mooching over – not much. This was the first of the cuts that was needed (I believe it was made in the film). But Miller – one of my Gods - should have made it in the first place.

Roderic Dunnett


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