The Theatreguide.London Review
Death Of A Salesman
Young Vic Theatre Summer 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!
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.'
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
(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
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
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.
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
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.
'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
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
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.
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.
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.
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'
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.
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