Time Out says
This brilliantly reimagined take on the Arthur Miller classic is powered by a phenomenal black-led cast
Last year, super-director Marianne Elliott brilliantly rewired one great American classic: Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’, which she refreshed for the twenty-first century by astutely gender-swapping the lead character.
Her black-cast-led revival of another American classic, Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ – co-directed with her long-term associate director Miranda Cromwell – possibly doesn’t redefine it to quite the same extent. Other directors have had the same casting idea. But it is a phenomenal production that unquestionably finds new depths to the play.
Certainly, making struggling salesman Willy Loman African American clarifies certain elements of the character, in the same way that making Bobby into Bobbie did for ‘Company’. Here played by US star Wendell Pierce (‘The Wire’), Willy’s crippling inferiority complex and vocal mystification at why people take against him seem answered – he isn’t just a terminal loser, but a man in denial about the fact he’s been discriminated against his whole life because of his race. Never easy to watch, the scene in which Willy begs his young, white employer Howard for easier work is excruciating.
The idea of Willy as a victim of racism isn’t something Elliott/Cromwell follow through with absolute rigour. But it gives an extra dimension to Pierce’s excellent Loman, who can appear hale, hearty and charismatic one minute and irrevocably damaged the next – he is a fuck-up, but he has been defeated by more than just his own shortcomings.
What really distinguishes the production, though, is the extraordinary sequences set in the depths of Willy’s mind, his guilt-stricken reveries going back to the high school sporting glory days of favourite son Biff (Arinzé Kene), and his agonies over his fleeting connection with his own elder brother, Uncle Ben (Joseph Mydell). I have literally never seen these bits done well before. But here they’re staged with a kinetic Lynchian surrealism, the memory figures surrounding Willy sped up, heightened and jerky. He crashes from one reminisce to another – sometimes with a near indistinguishable intrusion from the present – falling through his own crumbling mind at a terrifyingly vertiginous pace as Anna Fleischle’s dreamy, hypermobile set rises and falls around him. It’s stunning.
Ultimately, the dreams are the ornate architecture rising above the play’s rock-solid family drama foundations. ‘Death of a Salesman’ is about fathers and sons: how they relate to each other, how they admire each other, how they lie to each other, how they disappoint each other, how they destroy each other. Pierce’s Loman is so affecting because even when he’s behaving terribly, you can understand the human frailties that led him to this point. His greatest tragedy is that he pretended – to himself, his family, and most especially to his beloved Biff – that the world was a kinder, happier, fairer place than is really case. And who can really blame a father for that? The failure of the excellent Kene’s outwardly tough, inside desperately sensitive Biff to live up to his early promise can, on one level, be read as a result of Willy’s failure to prepare him for the discrimination he would receive when he lost his star athlete status.
Miller didn’t tend to write amazing roles for women, and Sharon D Clarke isn’t the first great actor to be a tiny bit wasted in the important but small part of Willy’s wife, Linda, who despairingly enables him to go through with the charade that he’s a success. Still, in Elliott and Cromwell’s moving, provocative, atmospheric production, musical theatre great Clarke does get to sing at intervals. A closing, spiritual-style number feels like a generous gesture, a sheen of dignity to Willy’s tragedy.