Young Vic Theatre, London ****
Review of perf seen May 10, 2019:
Runs: 3hrs with a 15 min interval
This is the third production of that titan of a play, Arthur Miller’s semi-autobiographical reworking of his own family history, Death of a Salesman, I’ve seen in the past four years.
Miller is having something of a renaissance just at the moment with All My Sons, The American Clock and The Price all having been recently seen in the West End. Marianne Elliott, fresh from her success with reconfiguring Stephen Sondheim’s Company has now re-situated Miller’s towering family drama with a mixed but predominantly `black’ cast, pinning it specifically historically to what became known as the Great Migration at the beginning of the 20th century – when African-Americans left the south to find their American dream in the North.
All of which gives added credence and context to the loyalty and insistence its central character, Willy Loman repeats over and over again, battering the principles into the brain of his two boys, Biff and Happy in their upbringing.
As debbie tucker green’s shattering ear for eye showed at the Royal Court last year, making yourself `likeable’ she identified as being one of the key weapons in curtailing and limiting black British and African-American lives. Make yourself `provocative’ with the slightest hint of a word or physical gesture and you’re likely to end up in jail, literally.
Strangely, the distress and curse of racism never quite gets aired despite Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s specific casting. At least not overtly. Perhaps they felt it was something the audience would work out for themselves, drawing their own conclusions from the context as presented.
For, you could argue, it’s all there in the story of Willy Loman, the travelling salesman who has given the best part of his adult life to travelling, suitcase in hand, up and down the eastern seaboard, selling nylon stockings in the service of just one firm, the Wagner company.
Growing old in its service, typically Miller shows the cost of such loyalty just at the moment when Willy is starting to wear out, although in Miller’s terms, it is the capitalist system he is attacking in all its dog eat dog ruthlessness.
Nothing is more telling than the scene in which Willy, spruced up for one last time, goes to seek a favour from his (white) boss, a young man whom Willy remembers as a baby introduced to him his first boss, Howard Wagner’s father. His request, to be relieved of touring duties and allowed to stay home, in the office in Boston, is, of course, turned down, brutally, by Howard.
Crushed, there are two more disastrous cards to be played out before Willy finally succumbs to total mental collapse – a disintegration Miller provides in a way that, at the time of writing, 1949/50, must have seemed wholly experimental, weaving present time with the past bombarding Willy’s mind.
Based partly on his own family’s history, Miller uses Willy, too, to show not just the social damage of servitude but that of the American dream itself; how Willy’s pressures prove unrealistic both to himself and the family around him, especially his two sons, Biff and Happy.
Willy has been as a god to his two sons, a hero to be looked up to. But the pressures have been telling; Biff’s unexpected homecoming fills the house with unresolved tensions and anger.
Throughout it all, there is Willy’s wife, Linda, the beating heart and anchor. Cruelly, it is Willy’s `betrayal’ of her that finally brings the whole pack of cards crashing down.
As Willy, American Wendell Pierce cuts an impressively battling, rapid talking figure, never happier than when dreaming of his son Biff’s prowess on the football pitch which he is certain will lead to even greater things. And a sad figure in his final humiliations.
That Biff’s potential is never realised – he has become a bit of a wandering soul, moving from job to job and winding up as a cowboy in Texas – comes as the result of Willy’s `betrayal’ – an ironical, neat piece of plotting on Miller’s part that ultimately proves the catalyst to the nerve-wracking, truth-telling finale.
Elliott and Cromwell in Anna Fleishcle spare, minimalist setting carries many haunting moments in a production that speeds along, often physically stylised and given the additional talents of Sharon D Clarke and Arinzé Kene in the cast, shades into tellingly delicate African-American spiritual music (music director, Femi Temowe).
Kene whose own show, Misty, was one of the great revelations of last year, makes a muscular Biff in whom you can see the early promise. Martins Imhangbe too makes an impressive sibling as the self-deceiving Happy.
But it is Sharon D Clarke who strikes the deepest notes. Pierce’s performance is a tour de force, but it is Clarke who provides the quiet, matriarchal centre, a woman for whom Willy has been her whole world but you sense, has been always the stronger without ever letting him know it or feel it.
A wonderful portrait of contained understatement, Joseph Mydell too brings powerful presence to Uncle Ben, Willy’s older, deceased brother who knew how to turn the system to his own advantage, who went `into the jungle at seventeen and came out at twenty one, rich’.
One of Miller’s greatest plays about the hollowness of the American Dream, Elliott and Cromwell and their cast make it an impressive, even dynamic evening that lacks some subtleties but is never less than gripping.
Death of a Salesman
By Arthur Miller
Bernard/Walter: Ian Bonar
Linda Loman: Sharon D. Clarke
Charley: Trevor Cooper
Happy Loman: Martins Imhangbe
Bill Loman: Arinzé Kene
Uncle Ben: Joseph Mydell
Letta: Nenda Neurer
Willy Loman: Wendell Pierce
Miss Forsythe: Jennifer Saayeng
Howard Wagner/Stanley: Matthew Seadon-Young
The Woman/Jenny: Maggie Service
Willy Loman’s Father/Musician: Femi Temowo
Directors: Marianne Elliott & Miranda Cromwell
Set Designer: Anna Fleischle
Lighting Designer: Aideen Malone
Sound Designer: Carolyn Downing
Composer and Musical Director: Femi Temowo
Casting Director: Charlotte Sutton CDG
Fight Director and additional Movement support: Yarit Dor
Voice and Dialect Coach: Hazel Holder
Production Adviser: Dr Nicole King
Associate Designer: Liam Bunster
Jerwood Assistant Director: Emerald Crankson
Presented by Elliott & Harper Productions with Cindy Tolan
First perf of this production of Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic Theatre, London, May 1, 2019. Runs to July 13, 2019.
See reviews of two other productions of Death of a Salesman in 2017 and 2015 on this website.