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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Death Of A Salesman
Young Vic Theatre Summer 2019; Piccadilly Theatre Autumn-Winter 2019

It was just a few days ago that I called another show the best dramatic production of the year. How delightful it is to correct myself so quickly!

Coming out of this exciting Young Vic production of Arthur Miller's classic, a friend commented 'Great plays, like great paintings, can be seen again and again.' To which I replied 'Yes, as long as you see something new in them each time.'

Directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, along with a uniformly brilliant cast, illuminate Death Of A Salesman in ways that make me understand it more clearly and feel it more deeply than any of the several productions I've seen before.

(Does anyone need a summary? A hard-working but never really successful salesman nears the end of his life, weighed down by the burden of denying his failure and of sustaining his hope for his equally unsuccessful and equally confused son.)

I call myself a 'recovering academic' and I've taught and written about this play, underlining its themes of ambition, self-delusion and the failures of the American Dream.

But it took this production to remind me that what it is really all about, much like King Lear (which I realise for the first time it resembles) is the raw reality of an old man in pain.

Miller's equally great contemporary Tennessee Williams famously used as an epigraph to one of his plays the Dylan Thomas poem about not going gentle into that good night. But I kept thinking as I watched Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman that the Thomas poem really applied more to this play.

Growing old, running out of energy, finding it ever more difficult to maintain his illusions of success and sustain he denial of failure. Pierce's Willy vaguely senses that (in the play's language) 'a terrible thing is happening to him' and, however ineffectually, he rages against the dying of the light.

Other actors and directors have taken Willy's exhaustion or his confusion or his fantasies as the keynote of the character. But by letting Willy's free-swinging rage dominate his performance, Wendell Pierce brings us into the man's emotional experience more overpoweringly and justifies Arthur Miller's repeated assertion that a small man's story can be a tragedy.

Wendell Pierce's performance, however powerful, doesn't exist in a vacuum, and he is surrounded by other characterisations that enrich and help re-invent the play.

haron D. Clarke is the strongest, most rock-solid Linda I've ever seen. Other actresses playing this potentially thankless role of supportive wife have won us over with the dedication or pathos of the woman. But Clarke's Linda is a strong and forceful woman, supportive because she chooses to be, not because there is nothing more than loyalty in her.

The 'Attention must be paid' scene in which she berates her two adult sons for their lack of respect and sympathy for their father almost steals the show through the power of personality, determination and moral righteousness Clarke brings to it.

The fact that the Loman family and a few other characters are played by black actors is not irrelevant.

African-American culture is built largely on the pattern of strong women supporting their men and holding the family unit together, and you sense Clarke's Linda drawing on that admirable heritage.

Race also helps us understand the two adult sons played by Arinza Kene and Martins Imhangbe. The young urban black men of their generation learned quickly to strut and swagger, and the subtle body language of both actors shows the men in their thirties desperately trying to retain that swagger while being beaten down by life.

Kene's Biff is more stooped over by the burden of denial than his father, and must struggle harder just to stand upright, while Imhangbe makes Happy almost manic in his constant fight to appear upbeat and worthy of his name.

The play's mode wanders in and out of reality, memory and illusion, and several production elements nicely guide us through the fluid meandering.

Like many previous designers Anna Fleischle divides the stage into several distinct but essentially bare spaces, but unlike most she doesn't lock them into place – i.e. this is always the kitchen, this the fantasy place, etc.

Instead, the locations follow Willy around. If he is functioning in reality in this spot, it is the kitchen; if another scene finds him mentally present over there, where he is becomes the kitchen, and so on.

More than any other staging, we see that Willy's mental state defines reality, rather than the actor having to move physically from arbitrarily defined 'real' space to 'memory' space to 'illusion' space.

And the memory scenes are punctuated by sudden freezes accompanied by a clicking sound, suggesting that they are generated by leafing through old photos, with the spaces in between perhaps the unreliable reportage of how Willy chooses to remember the past.

Opening and closing the play with the cast quietly singing an African-American spiritual might seem like unnecessary lily-gilding. But it works, both guiding us into the racial casting and setting a thoroughly appropriate and moving elegiac tone.

Death Of A Salesman might be the greatest of American plays and is certainly the most American of great plays. This exciting, innovative and sensitive production shows it to be an almost overpowering human drama and tragedy.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Death Of A Salesman - Young Vic Theatre 2019
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