Almost seventy years on, and with America's new government a volatile pressure-cooker that looks set to explode, Joe Douglas' new production of the play for Dundee Rep's ensemble company attempts to cut through the play's seemingly unbreakable naturalism to lay bare what is going on in Loman's head.
“It fascinates me,” says Douglas, who is currently associate director at Dundee Rep in the run up to Andrew Panton taking up his post as artistic director later this year. “There are all these references to the house, but I don't care what the house looks like. I want to see inside Willy Loman's mind. Miller wrote the play at a time before people thought about mental health in the way we do now, but here is a man who has this daily battle with depression, but who doesn't know how to communicate it. I want to reveal the pain of the family. There are lots of different reasons I wanted to look at this play, but one of the main ones is that I don't want to end up like Willy Loman.”
Given that he is currently on a course of anti-depressants himself, this isn't something that Douglas says lightly. Working in an industry riven by insecurity in terms of employment, and where artists are effectively selling their talent from one job to the next, Douglas is acutely aware of how that can effect those like him.
“Our industry is all about using our imagination to sell dreams,” says Douglas, “and the way the cycle of jobs goes, a lot of emotions are left bubbling away under the surface after it ends. These things are never talked about the way a lot of issues about mental health are never talked about, but I just want to be honest and open about it, and to look at some of the issues about mental health that are there in Miller's play.”
To get inside Loman's head, Douglas has enlisted the talents of designer Neil Warmington, composer Nikola Kodjabashia and lighting designer Sergey Jakovsky to open up Miller's play in a way rarely seen.
“We've pared things back,” says Douglas of the show's design. “Instead of having the house, we've got the dirt of the garden there which I think is more important in terms of the way Willy is digging from the ground up. Initially that was frustrating for the actors, because they don't have the house to go to, but when people pull together you can see the poetry of Miller's script more.”
Music too is key to Douglas's production, with the cast playing Kodjabashia's live score in a way made familiar by his work with director Dominic Hill at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow.
“There's lots of music throughout the play,” says Douglas. “I wanted to see what happened when Nikola was given a more naturalistic text, and I think the sound created onstage is key to the play, and becomes a direct current to what Willy is thinking. That's really exciting, because it's happening in the moment.”
Douglas is happy to admit that his approach to Death of A Salesman has been influenced by Flemish wunderkind Ivo Van Hove's controversial take on Miller's A View from the Bridge. Both productions are at odds with the recent pronouncements of playwright David Hare's recent pronouncements dismissing directorial interpretations of classic plays as well as the less definable role of theatre-makers.
“I think it's nonsense,” Douglas says of Hare's pronouncement. “Any play that has classic status need to be re-energised and given different readings. As long as you retain a sensitivity to a truth of the text, then let's do it, I say, otherwise you end up with a deadly theatre. When I watch a play, I want to hear a brilliant story, but I also want to learn something and see something different that I might not have seen before.
Douglas's production of Death of A Salesman forms the first of Dundee Rep's America centred Stars and Stripes season. The second of three shows will be a co-production with the Poorboy Ensemble of a new piece written by Sandy Thompson, Monstrous Bodies (Chasing Mary Shelley Down Peep O' Day Lane). Douglas will then direct the Rep ensemble's annual community tour with a production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Bertolt Brecht's Chicago set fable concerning one little demagogue's craving for power. Given the state of the world art the moment, the timing of the season isn't coincidence.
“We planned the season before the American election,” says Douglas, “but I knew it would be relevant whatever the result. It just felt like a massive cultural influence over every other country beyond America. As far as Death of A salesman goes, you can see the effects of capitalism and consumerism in its nascent form, and during rehearsals for the play we've all become new junkies watching the results of the election play out.
The season comes towards the end of Douglas's tenure as associate artistic director of Dundee Rep prior to Panton joining the company. During that time, Douglas's work has included his much lauded revival of John McGrath's The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. While Panton will combine his artistic directorship with his continuing professorship of musical theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. For Douglas, the bold statement he is making with Death of A Salesman might well become his defining moment at Dundee.
“It's a play that's not been done in Dundee for twenty years,” says Douglas, “and it's a play that means a lot to me on a personal level, and I think it's an important big play that still speaks to us now.”
If Miller was writing Death of A Salesman today, might he put Willy Loman on anti-depressants?
“I think he would,” says Douglas. “If he could afford them. There are patterns of mania to his character, and there's a slightly ephemeral quality to the play. What is he selling? And why can't he communicate anything that's going on inside his head to his family? Bit it's more than that. Willy Loman's personal tragedy becomes a much wider metaphor of this belief in the American dream, and understanding that this belief in that dream is a lie. Miller went through it himself by challenging that, and now here we are again, still living that lie.”
Death of A Salesman, Dundee Rep, February 22-March 11.