Way back in 1979 I was privileged to see the National Theatre’s almost legendary production of one of the seminal American plays of the twentieth century, Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman. It starred Warren Mitchell who Miller himself hailed as the embodiment of the tragic Willy Loman. Some years later (1996) Mitchell recreated the role for a BBC TV production, and this has recently been put up on the iPlayer to marvel at once more. Surprisingly, this version was originally broadcast in five sections as a series for schools; I really couldn’t see that happening these days.
Seeing this play again I was struck by quite how thin the narrative actually is. Struggling commercial salesman has trouble at work and at home, harks back in his mind to past events and can only see one way out of the mess his life has become … and even that is given away in the title. But the power of the piece lies in what Miller does with this framework and in the depth of characterisation that is put on display. Taking its cue from Greek tragedy, this is the story of a deeply flawed man hounded by fate and his own past mistakes. It’s also about the destruction of the American Dream and how the pursuit of capitalism creates an unstoppable force which affects the lives of individuals, particularly those who fall foul of it.
Miller’s almost dreamlike scenario is well served in this minimalist production with a generally sparse scenic backdrop (Bruce Macadie) often consisting of an inky blackness looming behind the actors. A lot of the heavy lifting for ambience and location therefore comes from the subdued lighting of Duncan Brown; in place all colour seems totally washed out to a telling monochrome evocative of the era and of Miller’s prevailing mood. The tight framing of faces means we can see right into the souls of the characters and the voices in Loman’s head invariably come from behind him appearing as suddenly as they disappear; this gives a really clear through line to David Thacker’s direction. Thacker is regarded as something of a Miller expert having helmed more of his plays than any other director and that certainly shows here.
And what a cast he has at his disposal. Quite apart from Mitchell, who I’ll come back to, he has the always watchable Rosemary Harris as Loman’s wife Linda. Her contained and constrained approach to the character is a perfect contrast to that of her onscreen husband. Yet the tale told means that the tragedy is equally hers as she gradually loses the members of her family. The fact that the mortgage on the Loman house is finally paid off is ironically counterpointed by the fact that she no longer has anyone left to share it with. The two grown sons (representing optimism and pessimism) are played by Owen Teale and Iain Glen who make believable brothers and also give strong performances. Indeed, Glen’s is so powerful as he brings to light Biff’s disillusion and petty criminal activities that he’s in danger of tipping the focus away from Loman himself. The four main actors show how the unfolding tragedy is for all of them, not just Miller’s central figure. There’s also a strong supporting cast with Pam Ferris appearing briefly as the other woman, Matthew Marsh as Loman’s apparently ungrateful boss, James Grout as next door neighbour Charlie and the underrated Ian Hogg as the more adventurous brother Ben.
But, of course, it all comes back to the central performance and Mitchell absolutely embodies Loman in all his complexity: anger, confusion, hopefulness, despair, petulance and any number of other attributes jostle for position in as complex a piece of performing as you’re ever likely to see. Except it never really seems like a performance and that what we are getting close to is a real soul in agony. I recall the original stage version as pretty sensational and with Mitchell being 17 years older by this point there seems to be even more poignancy to the role or perhaps its because I’ve got older too. Whatever the case, thank goodness someone thought to capture this on film to be preserved for posterity.
I remarked earlier that the cast is starry but how about this? In what is essentially a bit part, Toby Jones plays a waiter. I’ll repeat that while you absorb the fact – Toby Jones is in this production as a waiter. It crossed my mind that the next time there’s a major revival he should be playing Loman; perhaps that might even eclipse Warren Mitchell’s star turn.