First published in The Times, Monday March 6 2017
It is no mean feat to take a play as endlessly revived and oft discussed as Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece and make audiences feel as though they are seeing it for the first time. Yet this production, directed by Joe Douglas for the Dundee Rep ensemble, offers an abundance of fresh perspectives on a text many people first encounter as high school students.
In seeking to revitalise Miller’s play anew, Douglas has gathered around him a first-rate team of creative talents. The first revelation is the set, designed by Neil Warmington, which locates the Loman residence within a wasteland of smoking ashcans and dirt, a reference to an America emerging from the hardships of the Great Depression that also speaks of life’s precariousness.
Pic © JaneHobson
The image perfectly encapsulates the ways in which the past repeatedly haunts a fragile present in the play. Running contrary to the two pages of description that open the published text, Warmington makes a virtue of simplicity. Aside from a table and chairs, the only other piece of furniture we see in the Loman’s kitchen is the Hastings refrigerator that keeps breaking down and bears the brunt of Willy’s (Billy Mack) tirade about advertising.
Other elements contribute to the production’s gradual creep away from realism towards something close to Lynchian nightmare. Sergey Jakovsky’s lighting designs track this shift, with several scenes in the second half recalling film noir, featuring dark interiors illuminated by vivid reds and blues. The soundtrack, composed by Nikola Kodjabashia, is a characteristic mix of plucked strings, sudden bursts of percussion and recurring refrains, all played live by members of the cast. The music, though a little overemphatic at significant moments, provides an eerie counterpoint to all the surface joviality.
Pic © JaneHobson
The meticulous conception is matched by tight direction and detailed performances. As Willy, the salesman clinging against hope to his own deluded optimism and inflated sense of self, Mack paces the stage with a jittery energy that repeatedly gives way to pent-up anger. In an oversized suit that hangs from his small frame, the actor really rings the physical changes in the second half, seemingly shrinking and withering before our eyes.
He is given fantastic support, notably from Ewan Donald as Biff, who convinces as a one-time golden boy reduced to compulsively stealing a prized fountain pen from his boss’s office. As Linda, Willy’s caring wife, meanwhile Irene Macdougall radiates a quiet authority that belies her washed-out appearance. Her understated delivery of the play’s final monologue provides an intensely moving conclusion to a gripping new take on a classic.