BWW Review: DEATH OF A SALESMAN, Young Vic
Seventy years on from its Broadway opening, Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell present Arthur Miller's masterpiece afresh in an inspired, shattering revival. One key change - making the 1940s Loman family African-American - gives the play a whole new texture, while retaining its searing condemnation of the American Dream's false promises.
Wendell Pierce (best known to British audiences from The Wire, and making his UK stage debut) is Willy Loman, the travelling salesman who fervently believes in the potential greatness of his self-made man profession, despite growing exhaustion and dwindling commissions. Wife Linda (Sharon D. Clarke) longs for him to come off the road and stay in New York, while the return of oldest son Biff (Arinzé Kene) stirs up drama from the past.
Elliott's production keeps a tight lens on the Loman clan, making this as much a heartrending, intimate family tragedy as still-pertinent social commentary. What rings out strongly is the study of masculinity, with Willy's attempts to shape high school football star Biff from a boy into a particular type of man: the physically imposing athlete, the smooth talker, adored by all. Crucially, we never learn what product Willy sells - and it's the attitude, the swagger, that he always presses on Biff.
Pierce and Kene create a fascinating study in opposites, as one clings to fantasy and the other faces the agonising task of tearing that fantasy down on the path to real self-knowledge and acceptance. There's a sense, too, of Willy regressing, even as he lectures Biff on how to grow up, and it's clear both men have mental health problems, but can't address them within these stoic masculine guises.
The racial element also comes into play here, lending a new reading to Biff's accusation that Willy has given him expectations about career progression and the way people view him that an inequitable world doesn't match - Willy's optimism translating into a kind of cruelty.
But we see those limitations acknowledged in the frank exchanges between Willy and Linda, as he refers to other colleagues having it easier, and to the unspoken prejudices that make him feel invisible, unimportant or unliked. There's particular poignancy in the scene where Willy has to beg his younger, white boss for a salaried job; it's clear this isn't just an individual failing, but a systemic one.
There are other effective touches in the staging, like the Lomans being subtly separated from the white clientele in a restaurant - showing how the American Dream is even further out of reach for this particular family. And Willy's affair becomes more illicit; "There's a law in Massachusetts about it" takes on a very different meaning.
Femi Temowo's contribution is key, with music underlining and framing the action throughout. The play is bookended by a powerful rendition of gospel spiritual "When the Trumpet Sounds", and the production makes excellent use of the strong voices among its ensemble (Kene and Clarke, in particular) to express the pain, yearning, love and loss through blues and jazz.
There are vivid, witty touches too: when Linda is on the phone to Biff, and the script only gives us her side, the production evokes Biff via a silhouetted projection, voiced by a saxophone. Anna Fleischle's design gives us suspended window frames and furniture, whisking in and out of view - illustrating Willy's anxieties about the impermanence of success - while the grey concrete shows the grim side of overcrowded urban living and their financial prison, in contrast to Biff's dreams of working in the open air, poorer but liberated.
Carolyn Downing's sound design crucially immerses us in Willy's troubled mind, which often crashes into the past (here cleverly depicted as surreally giddy and colourful, distinct from a naturalistic present), and torments itself with echoes and accusations until the cacophony becomes too much to bear. Reality shifts for us, too, showing the faultiness of memory, and the gulf between origin myths and the truth of who all these people are.
Miller originally titled the play The Inside of His Head, and giving us that window into Willy's psychology frees up a committed Pierce to show the full range of his behaviour, from the brash salesman patter and warm wit ("How can they whip cheese?" he marvels), through to the darker extremes - the simmering threat of violence, the alarming mood swings, and the way Willy constantly belittles his wife.
The latter is particularly striking here when said wife is played by the mighty Sharon D. Clarke, who gives us a thoroughly capable Linda - better at calculating figures and tracking business than her salesman husband, and yet a fierce advocate for him. Clarke shows the emotional cost of her strength and split loyalties, and, at the climax, the terrible bewilderment of not knowing the state of a loved one's mind - a topic movingly addressed in a personal programme essay by Fleishle.
Kene and Martins Imhangbe are convincing as brothers - complete with the inescapable childhood roles of favourite and second-best. Kene's openly wounded Biff strains and buckles under that pressure until he begs for release, while Imhangbe provides a comic runner about Happy trying to get his parents' attention, which turns tragic as his swaggering interjections start to echo the doomed Willy's fantastical declarations.
There's strong support too from Joseph Mydell as Willy's brother Ben, who appears in almost mystical form; Matthew Seadon-Young as his slimy boss Howard, who has more empathy for his own family's recorded voices than for the human being standing in front of him; and Trevor Cooper as Willy's curmudgeonly neighbour and sparring partner Charley, whose white family's success Willy bitterly contrasts with his own.
A thoughtful, rich and compassionate revitalisation of a timeless tragedy.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Mogenburg