Tuesday 5 November 2019

Death Of A Salesman - Review

Piccadilly Theatre, London


Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell

Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke

Death Of A Salesman is Arthur Miller’s post-war homily to the bleak brutality of the American Dream. A timeless tragedy of the dashed hopes and aspirations of husbands and wives, parents and children, all ground out through the crushingly recognisable reality of salesman Willy Loman, his wife Linda and their two adult sons Happy and Biff.

Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell have framed their production that has transferred across the river from the Young Vic, within a distinctly racial context. Their Lomans are African Americans, subject to injustices from both their employers and their would-be employers, who here are all white. In this production's world, both power and employability (and, to be fair, the saintly kindness of neighbour Charlie) are with the white folk - while it is the blacks whose dreams are shattered. While this may be a noble conceit in its artistic intention, Miller’s text does not yield unquestioningly to such interpretation. Willy’s older brother Ben - whose spirit appears throughout the play- ventured into Alaska and Africa to make his fortune. But would a colonial exploiter of Africa’s diamonds really have been black? And would Miller's humble waiter Stanley really be a white man in such a world? The directors’ cultural misappropriation undermines Miller’s opus for in truth, Willy Loman is everyman.

Flown in from the USA, Wendell Pierce plays the eponymous salesman. While there is unquestionable power and consummate energy in Pierce’s Willy, his is not a tour-de-force. Miller writes that Loman is tired but for much of his time on stage Pierce’s delivery is frenetic. We know that Willy is manically depressed, but rather than allow Miller’s beautiful prose to portray his terminal decline, Pierce mangles manic with maniac, all too often garbling his words when a slower pace would inexorably bring the audience with him. Pierce’s work sits in sharp contrast with, by way of example, Sope Dirisu’s immaculately nuanced Biff, never finer than in the second act’s hotel room scene when he discovers his father’s devastating secret.

It is in Linda Loman, played here by Sharon D. Clarke, that we discover the production’s greatest strength. Clarke’s is perhaps the finest interpretation of this complex role, for decades, displaying a fierce protective love for Willy, while convincing us of her wise and weathered life. Magnificent in her matriarchy, Clarke’s Linda is desperate to be the glue within her family with a devotion to her husband that is as heartbreakingly supportive as it is deeply recognisable. Buy a ticket for this show if for no other reason than Clarke - hers is quite possibly a once in a generation turn.

Drama moves with the times and perhaps audiences have dumbed down or perhaps, more likely, Elliott and Cromwell know what pleases the modern-day crowd. But the strength of Miller’s tragedy has always lain in the razor sharp brilliance of his words. There is no need to reduce his work to a play with songs, no matter how relevant either the spiritual or american songbook numbers may appear. Equally, there are moments when Aideen Malone's staccato lighting bursts suggest a production that's more akin to The Curious Incident Of The Car Crash In The Nighttime. Credit though to Anna Fleischle’s set, an ingenious reflection of the timebends of Willy’s fractured mind.

Kenneth Tynan famously described Death Of A Salesman as “the greatest American play”. Elliott and Cromwell deliver an interpretation that demands to be seen.

Runs until 4th January 2020
Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg

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