First performed in 1949 (before the playwright fell foul of McCarthyism) Death of a Salesman clashes head-on with cherished notions of the American dream. Willy Loman, the salesman of the title, repeatedly attempts to revive his belief that success is just around the corner for himself and his sons, the morally slippery Biff and shallow, womanising Happy. Scenes from Willy's earlier life mingle with the present and, throughout, Linda, his long suffering wife remains steadfast, but all to no avail.
Over the years Miller has become David Thacker's friend and informal artistic collaborator. For a week in the early rehearsal period, four of the leading actors joined Thacker at an international seminar in Salzburg where Miller worked publicly and privately with them on Death of a Salesman. The single most helpful piece of advice from the horse's mouth was: "Never lose the current reality." Thacker elaborates: "Contrary to what people think, the play is not structured in the present time with flashbacks. Willy is continually in the present. This is the last 24 hours of a man's life. His mind is being taken over by memories precipitated by his psychological need in the context of his current predicament. He remembers what he needs to remember. We have to find a way of making clear that it is all happening in his head, the product of where he is now."
Death of a Salesman is as highly charged emotionally as any of Miller's plays and the overall effect must be one of tragedy and loss. Nevertheless, there are moments of comedy, lines which are ironic, funny exchanges and misunderstandings. The very title is meant to suggest bathos - a grand, heroic idea applied to the mundane - as Miller himself says in his revealing autobiography, Timebends (Minerva). Thacker says, "Arthur is like William Shakespeare in that regard. It is a mistake to think in categories. He can move effortlessly in and out of comedy and tragedy. Actually it is all written from a comic perspective. It can be unbearably painful, then Arthur makes you laugh moments later." An example is Willy's sacking: "There's a moving scene when he meets Charley, then in comes Stanley the waiter and we have nimble, witty stuff."
Miller builds a psychologically complete and believable character in Willy. Here is someone who has never really grown up, who feels "kind of temporary about myself", an irritating, fallible dreamer, full of contradictions, who is nevertheless loved devotedly by his wife. Thacker will hear no criticism of her perpetual forgiveness: "Willy says she is his foundation and support. They are very, very close. Linda is the strongest person in the play, fighting a valiant fight to stop him killing himself."
If Willy is culpable in feeding his sons dreams, Biff is in Thacker's words "fighting a fight through the play to find who he is". By the end he has achieved sufficient self knowledge to "shake off the phoney dream". Biff is exactly the age -34 - that Miller was when he wrote the play and Thacker believes that "we can hear Arthur's voice" in him. Miller's respect for the physical graft of making and building - he is himself an accomplished carpenter - recurs in the lines.
Does Thacker's production make explicit the political point - that capitalism with its dream of rags to riches success is a sham? Miller was happy for the play to be seen in this light. For Thacker, the politics will be allowed to speak for themselves; the emotional lives of the characters interest him more. "If the production has any sensitivity, we should want to forgive Willy more than condemn him. Society created Willy Loman."
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