Slipping into another actor’s shoes can’t ever be easy. Nicholas Woodeson stepped up to the plate to replace – as if anyone could – Tim Pigott-Smith – in a national tour of Death of a Salesman and his performance is both flawless and incendiary.
The Royal & Derngate co-production was due to open at the Northampton theatre in April but the production hesitated, re-cast, and then started to tour, finally returning to the Royal stage this week.
Last night’s opening was obviously poignant. The show has been dedicated to the award-winning actor who died just two days before the original, planned, opening night.
But the emotion surrounding the play should not detract from Woodeson’s towering turn as Arthur Miller’s most tragic figure, washed up salesman Willy Loman. It’s explosive.
Miller wrote Salesman in 1949 fortelling the collapse of the American Dream almost before it had become any sort of tangible concept.
But designer Georgia Rowe’s stark and timeless set, a sterile box really with a few bits of furniture, could pitch this production in any era and, actually, any community or country.
There is a large neon sign above the stage which says ‘Land of the Free’ but, like Willy’s life, a series of almosts, maybes, could-have-beens and never-weres, now coupled with blackouts and stress attacks, it flickers and shorts out throughout the play.
Salesman dissects and questions the enigma of a society where anything is presumed possible and success is written into the constitution
But Miller also explores the father-son dynamic through the eyes of Willy and his two boys, Biff and Happy, his neighbour Charley and his industrious son Bernard, and even his boss, Howard, who has failed to live up to Willy’s expectations.
They always say that sons are closer to their moms and, while the emotional tie may be stronger, Willy has drilled his two boys, from an early age, to be the best, be successful and be liked. In return they hero worship him.
Loman sets a lot of store by being liked – and he’s not. He’s spent 34 years on the road as a salesman and now he’s running on fumes. His contacts and reputation are long gone and he’s now a figure of ridicule.
He keeps up the pretence that he’s still a big shot but his whole world is crumbling. He’s living a lie and expects his family to go along with the fantasy.
But he calls his sons “lazy bums” who fall considerably short of his high ideals.
Willy talks to himself and to the ghosts of his past, including his brother Ben who went to Africa and got rich (great to see Mitch Mullen again but any family resemblance between the siblings was lost at casting).
And then there’s the elephant in the room. Actually two elephants. Firstly, what made golden boy, Biff, (George Taylor) go off the rails and, secondly, Willy’s suicide attempts.
Death of a Salesman was a set text when I was at school, way back when, and, judging by the opening night audience, it still is.
And that’s because the story is as relevant now, as when it was written.
Woodeson’s Willy Loman is hostile, irascible, troubled, delusional, deeply flawed and powerfully portrayed. God, the man breaks your heart, particularly when he puts dignity aside to beg for help from his unsympathetic boss.
Willy has spent his formative years on the road as a salesman and now he has outlived his corporate usefulness. It’s a theme still very current as companies jettison thousands of workers in their 50s and 60s.
Geff Francis as kindly neighbour, Charley, gives an impressive performance but it is Nicholas Woodeson who rampages through this furious tale, taking no prisoners.
Death of a Salesman runs at the Royal & Derngate Theatre until Saturday. It then travels to King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (June 20-24); Hall For Cornwall, Truro (June 27 – July 1); Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, (July 4-8) and Oxford Playhouse (July 11-15).
Death of a Salesman
Nicholas Woodeson delivers a towering and deeply moving performamce as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.