Belvoir has taken a turn-off from the conventional route with their Death of a Salesman set. Backseat designer Ralph Myers tells us about Willy Loman’s wheels
Ralph, what are we actually going to see on stage?
Well, it’s only the first week of rehearsal so it’s a bit hard to say. Anything could happen between now and opening night. But the plan at the moment is to do the show with just a car on stage. Nothing else. Except some actors. (That would be weird: people come to see Death of a Salesman and instead just get to look at a mid-'90s Ford Falcon for two and a half hours. I think we’d get letters about that. We could maybe play some music as well. Or just turn the radio on in the car. Come to think of it, I’m fairly sure I saw that show at Performance Space.)
It pains me to say it but the idea was entirely [director Simon Stone's]. It’s such a good idea that I’ve been going round telling people I came up with it, but that’s a lie. We have, though, had extensive conversations about the make and model. And, most importantly, the year.
Well, why that make and model and year then? A ’94-’95 Ford Falcon sedan?
Death of a Salesman is a play about a guy whose used-by date runs out. It’s about capitalism, and getting old, and not being useful anymore. And that guy is a travelling salesman – so he is his car and his car is him. A ’95 Falcon seemed like a car that was old, but not romantically old, and it seemed like the kind of car a guy like Willy Loman would own now if he lived down the street from you or I.
I have to ask: what are the difficulties and/or pleasures in sourcing a car for a theatre production?
Buying the car was fun. Eliza, our brilliant production coordinator, who’s in charge of buying stuff for shows, tracked some cars down online and we jumped in the van one afternoon and went and bought the first one we looked at. It was at a super-shady used car yard on the Princes Highway. The salesman really couldn’t figure us out. He kept asking if we wanted to take it for a drive. I think he thought we were a really weird couple who were going to do something kinky with this car and he didn’t want to know anything else.
What about getting it onto the stage? A simple matter of knocking down walls, perhaps?
We have the most brilliant production department this side of NASA. They’re working on it now. With some guys from NASA. Apparently there is such a thing as a ‘car rotisserie’. Who would have thought?
Arthur Miller makes certain demands on the design in his script. We know he seriously considered setting it in a space that looked like a man's head. What he settled on was a house of semi-transparent walls. It's all described in great detail in the script and was recently resurrected on Broadway…
I just saw Philip Seymour Hoffman play Loman on Jo Mielziner’s original set on Broadway. I was deeply sceptical when I took my seat and really moved by the curtain. It was amazing to see a production of an iconic play on a set that was made for it with the playwright’s input. It was like looking back in time. That was a really radical set in its day. The play’s sense of time and space is really plastic and Mielziner’s design lets all that stuff happen in a really seamless way.
That being said, we’re doing the exact opposite.
Miller's opening instructions are very detailed and literal except for his suggestion that “an air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality…” Is this an element you and Simon need to consider when you're thinking about what the production looks and feels like?
Yes and no. A playwright’s instructions on the setting can be very proscriptive, and it’s sometimes good to read them, try and understand what she or he was trying to evoke, and then completely disregard them. We’re making a play in a different world, in a different kind of theatre space. We have different conventions now, too. Stage directions are really useful as an insight into the mind of the playwright, but in the end they just describe one possible way of staging the text. I’m dealing with this on Private Lives at the moment. The model of the set is staring, quite blankly, at me from where it sits on top of the stove. I suspect dear old Noël [Coward] would be mortified with what I’m doing to his play! Or maybe not. He was pretty open-minded.
Death of a Salesman, Belvoir St Theatre, 29 Jun-19 Aug 2012.