BWW Interview: Sharon D Clarke Talks DEATH OF A SALESMAN at Piccadilly Theatre
It's been a good year for Sharon D Clarke. In April, she finished starring in Caroline, or Change, for which she won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Clarke and the show transfer to Broadway next year.
In the summer, she was The Lady in Blues in the Night at the Kiln Theatre, and she also starred as Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic. Miller's play, directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, transfers to the Piccadilly Theatre this autumn.
Why do you decide to take on a role and what excites you?
Being asked to do a role, you have to think of the challenge. A play like Death of a Salesman, which is like a modern-day Hamlet, for a black actor is a role I never thought I would be cast in. They're seen as white roles. To be asked to do this play with someone like Wendell Pierce, who is fabulous and it's a joy to share the stage with him - it's a no-brainer. Of course, I also wanted the chance to do my own thing with this role.
It's been a busy year so far - what would you say to a younger version of yourself?
Keep believing. My 15-year-old self often wondered what I would be doing and now, looking back, I couldn't have imagined the work I've been doing recently. It's not something I would've thought possible. Keep striving and keep it about the work - with social media there's the desire for quick fame, but it always has to be about the craft and the work. I told myself when I was growing up that I wanted to be successful and respected amongst my peers, and that has happened - that's my truth.
When Death of a Salesman first opened at the Young Vic it felt like it was participating in an impromptu Arthur Miller season in London - what is Miller's appeal today?
We need to hear Arthur Miller's voice. His commentary on society and how he held up a mirror - that's why the universe has conspired that there are loads of Miller pieces on now. We need to be paying attention, and we're not. Attention must be paid.
What part of this Death of a Salesman do we need to pay attention to?
What Marianne and Miranda have done in casting the Lomans as an African-American family is that they've heightened Miller's words. Throughout the piece, we never mention race - it's just Miller's words. We see how Willy breaks down because society was never going to allow him to achieve what he wants.
As a family at the time, they are achieving a lot: they have a mortgage and car - all the trappings of the American Dream. But you think of Willy, a black man, driving through these American towns at that time - he is putting his life in his hands. He is going through a country where he could be lynched.
Howard, his boss, calls him "kid" - how emasculating! That kind of racial tension heightens all of Miller's words and makes you see them through fresh eyes, and that's a wonderful way of interpreting the script. If it's colour-blind casting, you don't see where the tension comes from. Willy says to his mistress "I think there's a law against it in Massachusetts" - and that rings so much more when a black man is having an affair with a white woman.
Marianne Elliott is becoming known for making simple changes that completely alter our perceptions of long-known shows. What is the importance of her work?
They are classics for a reason and they teach us about society. We can look back and ask if we have changed. Fresh plays bring the perspective of the moment, but if you dip back into a classic, you see how society is moving. We have to keep ourselves in check.
Looking at this play, there are a whole slew of young people who will be seeing Death of a Salesman for the first time, and it will resonate so much more because it's a black family. You're following the Lomans having a dream straight through to having a black president and now, with the president America has, it's been shook up. There should be the lesson from history to do better, and classical plays show us what changes should have happened.
How do you find returning to roles?
I returned to Caroline, or Change for its London shows and Blues in the Night at the Kiln Theatre. I've lived with Blues in the Night for a long time. I was Carol Woods' understudy, though I never went on. I did it with Pete Rowe at the Gateway when I was in my late twenties, but I was too young, without the depth of emotional experience to sing a song like "Wasted Life Blues". To return with the maturity to get inside the character of The Lady through an emotional arc, I now feel I've done the role in a way that I think it should be done. Returning lets me try and find new parts.
What have you learnt about Death of a Salesman this time round in rehearsals?
With new cast members, you make different choices: someone gives you something and you have to receive it differently. It makes you find new things, and that's always exciting. If you're doing a show right, it should be different every night. My new sons are very different to my old sons, and that makes me make different choices as their mother in how I deal with them. It means you're not sitting on your laurels - you have to work.
What is the hardest part to play in Linda?
I don't find her hard to play in that way. For me, Linda's weakness is the strength of her love. Sometimes, I've watched old movies and think Kate Reid is the strongest of the Lindas I've watched. The character can be kind of weak - Miller did not really write strong female roles in that way. She can be played as if she's a bit cagey in how she talks to Willy. I didn't want her to be afraid of him, but to be afraid for him - she doesn't know how to help him. We are only now really starting to talk about mental health and getting people to have that conversation.
In 1949, when mental health wasn't even on the agenda, people would just think Willy was crazy and would have him sectioned. I want you to see Linda worrying for her family. Her love for Willy is all-consuming. There's a strong depth of love and she will choose him over her children. Wendell is so glorious in the part, and that makes it easier for me because he is so easy to love - I want to make life right for him and to soothe him and to let him know he is loved.
If you could predict a major change in the industry in the coming years, what would it be?
I would just like to see people being able to do their jobs. People often ask "as a black actor...", and it's question I tire of. The day I'm not asked it, then I know we may well be on our way. I just want to tell stories across the board because I'm a performer, not a black performer. There are black shows I want to do, but there are also white shows I want to do.
I want to be able to interpret and empathise without having to justify it because of the colour of my skin. If I could change that, that people could just perform, without having to justify it because of who they are, that'd be great.
Whose work excites you?
The list is long. I'm excited by the people I work with. Those who I'm in a company with inspire me - I can sit and watch them and learn from them. I had people like Larrington Walker, Mona Hammond and Carol Woods take me under their wing. I want to do the same and give that love back. We must be generous and share our knowledge and our craft.
In an interview in 2014, you said you wanted to do a concert: when will that be (and how can I get a ticket?)?
These wonderful shows that keep coming along would need to stop for a while so I have the chance to rehearse. Then I'd love to do something like that. I will say that the room I'd want it to be in is the Royal Albert Hall. I'm familiar with the space: I've sung there as part of different groups, and my family and I saw Gladys Knight there. Doing "Lot's Wife" at the Olivier Awards there was so amazing - it feels massive, but it's also intimate. So, if I could ever get a concert together, it'd be there - and I'd give you a ticket, my darling.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Mogenburg