Perth Theatre, Perth, 12 February 2011, and touringARTHUR Miller’s working title for Death of a Salesman was The Inside of His Head. Perhaps that title is not as catchy, but it gives you an idea of the formal experiment the playwright was attempting. Death of a Salesman is a mainstream play – it clocked up 742 performances on Broadway after its debut in 1949 – and because of that, you can forget how unorthodox its dreamlike structure is.
A portrait of Willy Loman, a washed-up travelling salesman suffering a nervous breakdown, the play glides restlessly backwards and forwards in time in a way that mirrors the protagonist’s troubled mental state. One minute he’s fretting over the state of his finances as his old salesman charm deserts him, the next it’s 20 years earlier and he’s giving his young sons a jovial pep talk, the next again he’s having an affair in some distant motel room. Instead of showing the usual cool detachment of a playwright, Miller really does seem to tell the story from the inside of Loman’s head.
Ian Grieve’s production for Perth Theatre – touring to His Majesty’s, Aberdeen and Eden Court, Inverness – emphasises this in two ways. One is the easily adaptable nature of Ken Harrison’s set that allows Ron Emslie’s Loman to step from kitchen to garden to office to restaurant as his wandering mind dictates. The other is the live score, courtesy of Steve Kettley on flute and saxophone, which captures the flavour of 1940s jazz and locates the play in an era of artistic innovation. Throw in some echoing laughter on the soundtrack and you have the impression of a point in history when anarchic forces were about to undermine the unsustainable image of an all-American nuclear family.
It is this image of a family struggling to stay together that Grieve captures best. Robert Jack and Ewan Donald do a great job as the two dissolute sons who would find their parents preposterous if it weren’t for the compelling force of filial love. They are far too old still to be living at home, but Emslie’s attitude of ambition for their future and disappointment in their achievements has them ensnared. There’s something appealing, too, in Vari Sylvester’s Linda, who giggles girlishly one minute and clutches herself arthritically the next and, curious accent notwithstanding, does what she can to hold an increasingly dysfunctional family together.
There is more dark than light in the production, however, and forceful though Miller’s tragedy remains, we don’t get enough sense of the idyllic life that has been lost with the collapse of this particular American Dream. (Pic: Eamonn McGoldrick)
Death of a Salesman runs at Perth Theatre until 26 February, then plays at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 1-5 March 2011, and Eden Court, Inverness, 8-12 March 2011.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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