Robert Falls: How I stunned Arthur Miller

When the playwright saw Robert Falls's staging of 'Death of a Salesman', it took his breath away. On the eve of the West End debut, the director talks to Paul Taylor
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"Arthur was incredibly shocked the first time he saw the production because it behaved and looked like no other production of this play he had ever seen," recalls the director Robert Falls. He's talking about his own revolutionary staging of Arthur Miller's landmark 1949 play Death of a Salesman. Revolutionary since it makes audacious use of moving scenery, this staging began life in Chicago, where Falls runs the highly acclaimed Goodman Theatre, back in 1998. It transferred to Broadway the following year, becoming the 50th anniversary staging of one of the 20th century's seminal dramas.

The production bagged four Tony Awards, including Best Actor, which went to Brian Dennehy for his emotionally shattering portrayal of Willy Loman, the archetypal down-on-his-luck travelling salesman - and iconic casualty of the capitalist juggernaut - who loses his job after a lifetime with the same company and becomes desperate to the point of suicide.

Falls has staged several other high-profile productions. His Broadway account of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night garnered another Tony for Dennehy as the alcoholic thespian patriarch, and the equivalent accolade for Vanessa Redgrave, who played his morphine-addicted wife. And in Chicago last year Falls directed what turned out to be Arthur Miller's final play, Finishing The Picture, which focuses on a world-famous screen beauty (not a million miles from Miller's former wife, Marilyn Monroe) who is so paralysed with self-doubt during the shoot of her writer-husband's movie that, to the consternation of all around her, she can't get out of bed.

Now, though, some seven years after it was first conceived, Falls' breakthrough version of Death of a Salesman is about to hit the West End. The conception is the same, but Dennehy and the US contingent now join forces with a crew of London-based talent, spearheaded - in the part of Willy's devoted wife, Linda - by the incomparable Clare Higgins who, when receiving this year's Olivier Award for her grief-ravaged and scathingly angry Hecuba - dedicated her prize to Miller. At the age of 89, he had died just the week before.

A huge, affable man, Falls explains the thinking behind his high-concept production. "The original title of Death of a Salesman was Inside His Head. I wanted to blow off the dust that has accumulated on this play in the States. So the production is far more expressionistic and inside Willy Loman's head in terms of stage design, lighting and sound. The scenery is moving throughout, and there are cinematic moments where people pull away and things slide into place." "It's 'Jump on it! Jump off it!'," laughs Higgins. "Backstage it resembles a musical," continues Falls. "There was a lyricism about the original design that has been copied a lot, but I wanted ours to be much more fragmented and violent." "We were doing a 'talk back' with Arthur at Barnes and Noble," recalls Dennehy, "and someone asked him how he would compare our production with the others. And he said: 'Well, the first production was very fragile, quiet and elegiac. This is like a bullet coming out of the darkness and hitting you right between the eyes.'"

Dennehy is big, burly man with a broad, engaging grin and the kind of acute, laid -back intelligence that makes English intellectuals seem so stuck-up by comparison. For an archetypal little man, he is, however, not vertically challenged in the slightest. Falls reminds me that although some of the most notable portrayers of Loman have been small (Dustin Hoffman, Warren Mitchell), the original was Lee J Cobb, a hulk of a man. "I'm sort of a believer in the adage: 'The bigger they are, the harder they fall'," Falls declares. "Willy is a non-entity of sorts but there's something huge, like a bull in a china shop, about him. And in the idealised flashbacks to his younger self, with Brian, the smile is big, the voice is big, the hands are glad-handing in a big way. And it has got the size of America behind it."

With no false humility, Dennehy says: "You really do have to do a great play a couple of hundred times before you begin to understand it. I've been working on this for seven years, which makes a big difference, especially these seven years, from the age of 59 to 66. And having done the play 450 times in front of an audience and having lost Arthur, I now think that I am much more inclined to let his words and the character carry me than I used to be." What did he feel he was imposing on the part before? "Well, I had an attitude to [Willy's] health - that he was sick, and I could see his dementia. Some people responded to that very enthusiastically, but I don't necessarily feel that that's the case any more."

Falls was keen to get sexually attractive people in the lead roles ("I'd do both of you if I could," he joshingly informs the two actors), as he wants to convey the deep, double-edged attraction between Willy and his wife, Linda - an attraction that has dubious results. Far from being the doormat we see in some productions, the wife, as played by Higgins, is a force to be reckoned with in the almost ruthless way she props up her husband's illusions about the American Dream. "The main thing about Linda is that Willy means everything in the world to her," says Higgins. "She's even willing to sacrifice her sons for him. When you look underneath, there's all kinds of psychological stuff going on, like denial, to the point where Willy kills himself. If Linda had had the courage to tell him the truth, then who knows? But she didn't. And that's a kind of sickness. To give yourself over so completely is a kind of sickness."

One of the great primal plays about the relationship between father and son, Death of a Salesman has Willy, at one point, ticking off Biff for using the word "Gee", which he does not think is a proper man's word. But after Miller died, Falls wrote an appreciation of him that was pointedly entitled: "The Man Who Said 'Gee'". "There was something wonderfully childlike about Arthur," Falls says. "And well as he knew his own work, he was always open to new ideas. He was a man who was prepared to say 'Gee'. He was a passionate liberal and [unlike his highbrow detractors] he wasn't scared of putting his feelings out there."

Falls was with Miller to the end, directing his swansong. "Finishing the Picture is, to me, like Arthur's Winter's Tale or Tempest. It clearly feels like a final work, bringing together all the themes that he's been obsessed with his entire working life. It's a play about dignity and about the art and humanity versus commerce. Everybody is abusing this girl [the Marilyn Monroe figure] - including the author-character who's only managed to get the funding for this picture (an art film) because she's agreed to star in it. I mean, it's an incredibly self-lacerating portrait of the author."

New York has been denied the chance to see the play because of a negative review of the Chicago run by the New York Times' theatre critic. (I've read the play and it's a great deal more interesting than that review would have you believe - with a blisteringly funny demolition job on the Strasbergs, Monroe's presumptuous, manipulative, money-grubbing and extremely unhelpful minders.) Falls ruefully acknowledges that the way the play will eventually get to the Big Apple is via Britain, the route that Tony Kushner's landmark Angels in America had to take. "I have no doubt that in the next five years or less, we'll see a British production of Finishing the Picture, with a British cast at the National or the Almeida or the RSC, and this will then move to Broadway with the British acclaim behind it."

Broadway, he implies, is crawling with the just kind of short-termism, belief in human disposability and worship of the profit-motive that Miller is attacking in his first big hit. By a pungent irony, it seems that the fate of Arthur Miller's own later plays illustrates the strong, abiding relevance of Death of a Salesman.

'Death of a Salesman', Lyric Shaftesbury, London W1 (0870 890 1107) to 5 Nov