Death of a Salesman

Arthur Miller
Elliott & Harper Productions
Young Vic

Wendell Pierce and Trevor Cooper Credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
Sharon D Clarke and Wendell Pierce Credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
Sharon D Clarke, Martins Imhangbe and Arinzé Kene Credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Marianne Elliott, who co-directs this latest Arthur Miller revival with Miranda Cromwell, seems intent on overturning long cherished standards.

She recently produced an award-winning, universally acclaimed production of Company in which the protagonist’s gender was reversed.

Now, rather than a fictional version of Arthur Miller’s impoverished Jewish family, the Lomans are cast as African-American New Yorkers.

While it would be possible to treat this as colour-blind casting and ignore any social relevance, that hardly seems the point. Instead, viewers and critics will inevitably feel obliged to consider the way in which race now impinges on the story.

Adding to the significant symbolism that runs through the play itself, designer Anna Fleischle has created an elegant set featuring minimalist furnishings and fittings. These float ethereally in space when not specifically required, mirroring the emptiness of every life in the Loman household.

Willy Loman is played by American TV and film favourite Wendell Pierce as a louder, brasher version of the failing salesman than is usually depicted. Sharon D Clarke is his loving, supportive wife Linda, a tower of strength who fights for her man against the world and even his two sons.

In the roles of this pair of worthless losers, Arinzé Kene and Martins Imhangbe are almost equally muscular, clearly Biff and Happy apparently spending far more time at the gym than working, although the latter is a charming master of seduction.

Whether he is fighting real-life battles against an unsympathetic employer played by Matthew Seadon-Young, reliving past glories when Biff was an aspiring football star or failing to balance hope and pride in interactions with Trevor Cooper playing neighbour Charlie or Joseph Mydell as adventurer brother Ben, the increasingly delusional (and conceivably drunken) Willy Loman is a classic example of humanity damaged by the society in which he lives.

His good fortune in finding a partner as strong and worthy as Linda, a woman who encapsulates his pain in a perfectly forged rage against his detractors, is counterbalanced by selfishness of the boys, although Kene does deliver a fine speech as Biff tries to analyse what has gone wrong with his own life and that of the old man.

Ultimately, though, as in almost all of the best drama through the ages, Willy is the kind of tragic hero, albeit a very minor one, who is the architect of his own fate, prefiguring Happy’s promiscuous lifestyle at a defining moment in the family’s history.

While the unique casting of this production sheds some light on the difficulties faced by African-Americans in the middle years of the last century, for the most part the issues addressed in Death of a Salesman are universal.

Viewed in that light, this is a worthy production of a classic with a slightly different slant. While this latest incarnation, which stretches to 3 hours, may not quite compare with the very greatest versions in the past, it grips throughout and should be compulsory viewing for Arthur Miller fans as well as anybody with an interest in social history.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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