By Pablo Moon
For a student-written, sub-hour, dark-ish comedy tackling the tough subject of suicide, Death as a Salesman is a pleasantly, if somewhat inappropriately amusing piece of theatre. The play opens on an incredibly dark note, unapologetically launching the viewing into a gripping tension that resolves only upon the introduction of another important character, Death. This scene is rife with half-hearted and often unoriginal, yet comedic, pop culture references; these somewhat detract from the immersion and realism of the dark introductory scene.
There is an unfortunate expectation in student theatre to be “edgy”, and the play does little to break this mould. The impression taken away from this play is that the author, Uday Duggal, would be quite well suited to light comedy or tragedy, however black comedy is, perhaps maybe, not his forte, as they struggle to properly pitch the balance of comedic tone and serious dialogue. This is at times satirical and ironic, and even at times ludicrous – from political references to accents and stereotypes.
Early in the play, Kyle Kirkpatrick is introduced as the antagonist Stan. Their performance quickly grows in quality as the piece progresses. In quite an archetypally structured second scene, they present the dilemma with which the protagonist will struggle for the rest of the play. This binary choice mirrors the dilemma of someone considering suicide, though alas there is no allegory to this idea applied to Stan’s character. Stan’s character is designed to mirror the protagonist in occupation, but offer a dialectical opposite in circumstance. Stan (Kyle) seems to have everything whilst doing nothing – he has an orderly demeanour and outsources his work. In contrast, Tony (Callum Maclean) is left in a position where he has nothing yet must do everything – he has a chaotic demeanour and overworks at the expense of his personal life).
The accent-based comedy lands effectively, thanks in large part to the excellent Auguste Voulton, who breaks the veil between actor and character with great ease. Confident in delivery, his charisma does more for his performance than the script, which often lays its comedic pitch on the laurels of a fantastic (and presumably genuine) French accent. The lead Callum is clearly invested emotionally in the character, but has difficulty pitching his volume – the cosy Vane Tempest becomes at times uncomfortably loud. Alex Berridge-Dunn provides an accurate character performance; the quality of which was frequently limited by his script’s short-sighted comedic and emotional moments, which seemed slightly alien to the character’s persona. Celine Harborne acts very well, despite a script and character that adds little to the play. Their character, Iris, seems more like a plot device than an entity in her own right.
The play suffers from a half-defined magical system. At first, Death seems to be a construct of Tony’s imagination, but is quickly established to be a real person with magical, supernatural powers. Later in the play more supernatural beings appear, bringing implications of extensive arrangements in the universe in which the play is set. The actions of extra-textual powers and systems heavily hinted throughout the play are frustrating as an audience member, drawing a curious mind away from the play itself and towards instead the operations and rules of the world in which it’s set.
The philosophical bases of the characters – revealing themselves through moral prerogatives and explicitly articulated moral summaries – are unapologetically utilitarian across the board. This made for a shallow experience due to the lack of meta-narrative in the play; the conflicts between characters are nothing more than an exploration of the limits of utilitarianism, as opposed to a meta-narrative comparing incommensurable philosophies explored through character differences.
The central theme of the play then is the conflict of goals within this utilitarianism. Death needs ‘souls for the afterlife to operate’, and is put at a juxtaposition to more innate human goals – to enjoy life, see the good in negative events and experiences, and critically preserve our ability to do so – by not killing ourselves. It is worth noting that this second set of ideals would have suited expression through Iris’ character.
The play concludes with a clear presentation of the takeaway message: the idea of a transcendent good that comes from within. While this is expressed abstractly enough to strike us as a transcendent truth expressed through art, it does serve its purpose in effectively softening the cold, materialist narrative taken by the characters. This metaphor provides the flip side of the anti-capitalist ‘wage slave’ theme in suggesting satisfaction is achieved regardless of circumstances. This gives a sense of closure to the circumstances experienced by the main characters in the early scenes of the play, tying character arcs to a satisfying end.
Overall, Death as a Salesman is an entertaining but albeit unpolished piece of student theatre.
Photograph: Phoenix Theatre Company