In Arthur Miller’s text, Death of a Salesman opens with a gentle flute melody. Not so in Sarah Frankcom’s production. As the lights go down in the Royal Exchange, a bone-jarring clash of cymbals and drums heralds the start of the performance, establishing a real sense of foreboding. And appropriately so – this is a play about the disintegration of a man and his family, broken on the wheel of the American Dream.
From the outset, Willy Loman (Don Warrington) cuts a defeated, troubled figure. Having worked tirelessly for decades, there is little to show for it other than outstanding bills, and he feels himself to be something of a joke in the eyes of younger, more successful men. Intermittently, his mind wanders to past opportunities – for himself or his favourite son, Biff – and the stage is awash with a warm orange light. But he is invariably dragged back into the harsh realities of the present as his wife, Linda, reminds him of the unpaid insurance and urges him to meet once again with his all-too-young boss to seek a job closer to home – a request doomed to failure.
The emotional and physical toll of disappointment is palpable in Warrington’s performance. Speaking in gruff, gravelly tones, his heavy gait lightens only when re-living memories of earlier, more hopeful times. Occasionally, rage will inject some purpose or direction into his movement, but mainly he just shuffles.
In contrast, his devoted wife, Linda (Maureen Beattie), buzzes with concern and energy. Stooped slightly forward in her eagerness to assist, mollify or protect her husband, she darts around the stage, denying problems, fending off difficulties or urging solutions. While Willy is the focus of this dysfunctional family, it is actually Linda who occupies the pivotal role. She is the enabler – the bolsterer of fragile egos and reinforcer of misguided dreams. She knows it’s all gone horribly wrong but will fight to the death to preserve even the tiniest shred of dignity and pride in her shattered and broken husband – even if that means banishing her own sons when they challenge him.
Beattie gives a towering performance. Miller has gifted her some of the most powerful lines in the play, but she also manages to convey the complexity of this woman. Beneath the dutiful subservience is a strength, determination and even nobility that shines through in Beattie’s sensitive portrayal.
Some of the most moving moments in the play come from the glimpses into the past – a time before love and pride became corrupted by anger, guilt and disappointment. In those moments, the faces of the two sons, Biff and Happy (superbly played by Ashley Yuanzhang and Buom Tihngang) gaze at their father – open, admiring and eager to please – as he encourages them to strive for popularity and success. Or, at least, this is how Willy remembers those times, for it is clear that we are seeing these interactions through the lens of his own nostalgia. Back in the present, he and his adult sons are only too painfully aware of failed promise, and the struggle of the boys to carve out their own place in the world is brilliantly encapsulated in Biff’s plaintive cry: “I don’t know what I’m supposed to want.”
Seventy years after it was written in the very specific circumstances of post-war America, Death of a Salesman has obvious contemporary relevance: an ageing man, struggling to pay his bills, feels passed over, resentful and redundant in an increasingly populated and competitive world. And yet the power of this play goes beyond the particularities of the social and economic context that it invokes. Arthur Miller himself observed that audience responses were strikingly similar as far afield as Sweden and China. Ultimately, it is the universality and humanity in Death of a Salesman which resonates personally and deeply and in a way that transcends differences of time, culture and politics.