Death of a Salesman, Young Vic Theatre review ★★★★★
Arthur Miller's masterful, Pulitzer-winning 1949 play Death of a Salesman is a mainstay of American drama. The tragedy of deluded travelling salesman Willy Loman has played out all round the world in regular revivals and plentiful adaptations.
Director Marianne Elliott re-frames the show in a new production that’s at once piercingly new, and totally true to Miller’s belief that tragedy is not about greatness, but humanity.
Played by a black cast for the first time, the Lomans negotiate the same hopes, disappointments and struggles to attain the American Dream. There’s no awkwardness or wrangling to make this story about an African American family; instead of preaching universal truths, this Death of a Salesman is potent in its precision and specificity.
Anna Fleische’s dreamy set design contrasts oppressive grey boundaries with floating windows and suspended furniture. The chairs, tables and appliances overhead capture the claustrophobia of city life. As props rise and sink to build different spaces, the disconnected strangeness supports the story slipping between the present reality to Willy’s inner landscape of memories and fantasy encounters.
Eschewing any patronising attempt to simplify or explain the tragedy through race, Elliott’s insightful adaption startles by giving new context to the details. The story revolves around a man who is wrung out by attempts to be a success in business and tormented by ambitions for his older son to become a Big Shot.
TV star Wendell Pierce, who’s known around the world for The Wire, Suits and Selma, is superb as aging bread-winner Willy. With a scratch of his belly or a tilt of his head, he brings out a goofy comedy in Willy’s fading self-awareness, inflated identity and fragile grip on reality -- without ever inviting ridicule.
It’s the lightness in Pierce’s performance that cuts the deepest. The obsession with being ‘well liked’ and ensuring his sons are heroes is double-edged in a time when racism is rife. Willy's lectures on being rugged and his aversion to subservience have new urgency under the shadow of slavery. And the failure of two generations of Loman men to fit in to a white-washed corporate world feels freshly fatalistic.
Sharon D. Clarke, Martins Imhangbe and Arinze Kene. Photo by Brinkhoff Morgenburg
Though there's strong support from Sharon D. Clarke as loyal wife Linda and Martins Imgange as shallow younger son Hap, it's Arinze Kene and Wendell Pierce's father/son dynamic that keeps you compelled through three hours of stage time.
Oldest son Biff Loman is more than a golden boy gone wrong with Kene’s intense performance, where his alertness and quick movements give a sense of being hunted. Flashbacks play out like flickering slideshows, showing us the all-American athlete with an innate confidence to command. But as an adult Biff is cowed, crushed by city life and only at home under the open sky.
Biff’s utter loss of self-confidence, which haunts his father and bemuses his younger brother, has a more insidious root when experienced by a young black man. After that sudden discovery that his beloved father is a phony, Biff’s self-belief is eroded again and again by the prejudices he faces in adult life.
Instead of reverting to race as a way of justifying the character’s actions, the production simply asks you to think. Maybe Biff’s kleptomania stems from the stereotypes society imposes upon him. Perhaps the loneliness and fultity of Willy’s 34-year career were exacerbated by the colour of his skin.
Either way, the tragedy feels fully gut-wrenching. As 2019's flurry of five revivals makes clear, Arthur Miller's plays are powered by society's impulse to overlook or excuse the tragedies of everyday life. This lucidly intelligent interpretation of Miller's best known show takes the overlooked everyman, to whom attention must be paid, and gives him a new face.
|What||West End transfer: Death of a Salesman, Piccadilly Theatre|
|Where||Piccadilly Theatre, 16 Denman Street, London, W1D 7DY | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
24 Oct 19 – 04 Jan 20, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£25 - £100+|
|Website||Click here for more information and tickets|