Death. There seems to be a supersaturation of it of late. Beneath the ancient floorboards of my sitting room something, somewhere, lies dead and rotting. A mouse, I assume, or maybe something larger. I have tried to locate the source but I don’t think I can do so without tearing out half the flooring.
The smell is invasive. Musky. Dense. You can taste it, even.
In this swelling miasma I receive news of further extinction. Roger Moore, aged 89, dies of cancer. Twenty two souls, many of them children, are brutally wiped out in the Manchester terrorist attack. My aunt, a matter of miles away from the atrocity, slides into the late stages of cancer. She rages, rages against the dying of light.
And in the midst of it all this famous play about death, in a production that has itself been afflicted by the same. Tim Pigott-Smith, who was to star as Willy Loman, passed away a day before the opening night.
The decision was to postpone rather than cancel the tour and the swiftly reassembled performance I saw in Malvern, featuring replacement actors Nicholas Woodeson and Tricia Kelly, showed the tiniest signs of underdevelopment. It just needs, to borrow the phrase Willy uses to describe his wastrel son, ‘longer to get – solidified.”
Not that the performance lacks weight, even in its current incarnation, and there is no doubt it will continue to grow in gravity. From the moment Woodeson emerges from the auditorium, an indication that he is simply one of us, we see a defeated man. Weary and forlorn, he trudges his way into the sparse kitchen and slumps into a chair, while his ever-loving wife Linda (Tricia Kelly), chirps and twitters optimistically on the fringes – for she, too, must do something to keep the despair at bay.
If this is a play about death, it is a play about despair, also. Biff (George Taylor) and Happy (Ben Deery), brought up on their father’s diet of superficial, aspirational thinking (“Be liked and you will never want”), find themselves despairing in different ways. Happy is drowning in routine and mediocrity. His city suit feels more like a straight jacket than a symbol of success: “I want to just rip my clothes off in the middle of the store and outbox that goddam merchandise manager. I mean I can out-box, outrun, and out lift anybody in that store, and I have to take orders from those common, petty, sons-of-bitches til I can’t stand it any more.” And Biff, once a high school sporting legend, receives an early, brutal lesson in disillusionment when he discovers his father’s affair. Suddenly that bright, clear path to success seems less meaningful.
Willy’s despair, meanwhile, is one of blind incredulity: he has followed a certain star all of his life – call it the American Dream – only to find its flickering beam fade to darkness. A wash-out at sixty-three, and with thirty five years service in tow, he is removed from his position and cast out like so much trash. “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit!” he rages impotently.
He begins to crumble, fall apart at the seams, his mind drifts between the past and present, what was and what could have been. Director Abigail Graham extends this temporal elision by evading an overtly 1940s style, and grasps for a sort of timelessness in the play.
Woodeson’s face and physique, comical and cuddly in a John Betjeman sort of way, fit the role well: “I’m fat. I’m very – foolish to look, Linda.” Kelly, meanwhile, offers us an earthy and rooted Linda, a stolid, caring woman who never ceases to prop up her husband, although her American twang sometimes betrays what I suspect to be an underlying Northern accent.
Bleak and minimalist, the set is made up of large grey panels which look like the tired walls of a drab mid-twentieth century apartment or, with a transition in the lighting, the chic, shiny panelling of a 21st century interior – the office where Willy is sacked, for example.
Stark neon lighting, advertising the “Land of the Free”, blazes ironically across the back of the set. At times it fizzes and clacks and, as Willy’s world disintegrates, the letters begin to fall and fade. Georgia Lowe’s set design takes on it strongest form, however, when it is cleared of furniture to become a dimly lit yard. Towards the end Willy wanders into the night to plant some seeds: his mind is wandering and, as he spreads soil across the ground, a musty smell begins to fill the auditorium.
Instantly I am reminded of the stench I have yet to expunge, waiting for me back at home. But I start to think, also, how evocative smell is, and how much more it could be used, to powerful effect, in theatre. But this soil – it is a welcome smell. It is sweet, and grounded, and life giving. It forments hope. But yet it is also evocative of death, for it is the place where all living things must eventually go.
As his family stand over the grave it transpires that one of the scattered seeds has taken root.
HAPPY: I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have — to come out number-one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I’m gonna win it for him.
Arthur Miller may have wanted his play to act as a “time-bomb under the bullshit of capitalism”; terrorists may continue to use real bombs to undermine the capitalist ideal; capitalism may even be its own time bomb, ticking inexorably towards cataclysm. But for now, at least, the American Dream lives on.
Death of a Salesman is on at Malvern Theatres until 27th May 2017. Click here for more details.