The Young Vic (venue)
20 May 2019 (released)
23 May 2019
Death of a Salesman is probably Arthur Miller’s most famous play and Marianne Elliott’s production at the Young Vic has been hugely anticipated, hot on the heels of The American Clock and All my Sons at the Old Vic down the road. With a superb cast, led by Wendell Pierce as the flawed hero and Sharon D. Clarke as his wife, it’s a unique revival where the Loman’s are re-imagined as an African American family.
Like so many of Miller’s play, Death of a Saleseman, which won both the Pulitzer prize and the Tony award for best play when it premiered in 1949, explores the political landscape through an intimate portrayal of a family in crisis. Apart from feeling like a completely natural interpretation, without needing to change a word of the text, it’s thrilling to see such a well known play, brought to life with a fresh perspective and new resonances that emerge from the experience of an African American family of that period. As Willy’s sense of self collapses and his Bif, his eldest son strives to discover his own identity, the cruelty of the American dream is exposed with new poignancy: ‘The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell…’
Elliott’s direction owes much to musical theatre, not only in terms of the introduction of music blues and gospel music which frames the play but with the use of freeze frames and abstract movement that feels close to dance. At times the cast have an ensemble presence that owes something to Company – Elliot’s recent Olivier award winning west end production. With Anna Fleischle’s minimalist design further accentuating the insubstantial trappings of life, the escape from naturalism and stylistic devices has the effect of increasing the clarity when it comes to the flash-backs which are often so hard to stage.
It’s on these bare bones, with windows and doors literally flying in and out of scenes that the warmth and humanity of Miller’s characters are brought to life by the cast who literally have no-where to hide. Wendell Pierce moves between bumbling, people-pleasing clown through raging bear and thoughtful patriarch until his personality and grasp of reality finally fragments. He said of playing the ageing salesman, ‘Willy Loman is as exhausting a role as Lear. I’m knackered.’
Sharon D Clarke, extraordinary as Caroline in Caroline or Change brings another weighty performance, exemplifying the love of a woman who sees the flaws in her husband but does not let that diminish him in her eyes. Trevor Cooper as neighbour Charley gives a sharp and touching performance, with the Loman sons, Happy and Biff, played by Martins Imhangbe and Arinze Kene. The cast give intelligent and convincing performances across the board, and offer a reminder, if one was needed, that Miller’s great plays speak across countries, time and culture with compassion and clarity.