It is not every playwright across the breadth and scope of theatre-dom and lore …
… that one can say consistently wins the proverbial battle between great writing and great acting. Arthur Miller’s work, however, continues to shine in its deep necessity and vitalness through every time period. He is a Guy Ritchie of sorts; brilliant at painting relationships between patriarchs and their offspring, first creating these connections and then raising them up to the light and turning them to all angles for the audience to see. Similar to the way a crystal ball fragments the light running through it.
Death of a Salesman is a story about Willy Loman, an ageing salesman, who has invested so much in the American dream that he regards failure as a mortal sin and tries to imbibe his two sons, Happy and Biff, with that same toxicity. Miller really continues to take top billing with this. However, this production is one of the most unique variations of this play I’ve ever seen.
For a start, making the story about a black middle-class family living in New York was a master touch. It gave the play undercurrents of racial tensions that sang beautifully as an additional note to the piece. The beauty of it was in the gestures, the subtle looks and the way things were said that allowed room for this suggestiveness.
Next, the visceral way in which we go from being in Willy’s head and memory to being in the present day was seamless. Before this, I didn’t know the play was originally called, ‘The Inside of His Head‘. This detail was not lost in the way this production was helmed.
The performances from every member of the Loman family were stellar. Wendell Pierce (Waiting to Exhale, The Wire, Suits) and Sharon D Clarke (Ma Rainey, Caroline or Change, Guys, and Dolls) as Willy and Linda were beautiful polar opposites of each other, almost creating the width of character variation within which every other character found their medium. Clarke was the rock and foundation to Pierce’s suicidal flightiness. Their relationship was varied and textured. It especially struck me, how different their relationship looked when in front of other people versus when they were on their own. At times it was painful to watch as it had such rife misogyny present at times, but it was made to marry well so that one believed in the 360-degree nature of their marriage over decades.
Arinzé Kene (Misty, Been So Long) and Martins Imhangbe (Barbershop Chronicles, An Adventure, The Tragedy of King Richard II) were unforgettable as the older and younger Loman sons respectively. What really struck me about their journeys is the inescapable pressure both felt from the parents and the heartbreaking fact that, although the hope was for the oldest son to follow in his father’s delusions of grandeur, it’s the somewhat ignored younger son who takes on this mantle. For Imhangbe, the audience can see the future written out through his performance, and it is heartbreaking.
This play is undoubtedly one of the relationships with one no more vital than the another. However, my favourite was the relationship between Willy and his long-suffering white neighbour Charley (Trevor Cooper) whose son Bernard (Ian Bonar) starts as the geeky kid following super sports hero Biff around, and years later is the one who has his life together. In the same trajectory Charley, never brags about himself as Willy does, but down the line is the one bailing Willy out and offering him a job, a hard pill for Willy to swallow, especially from his, and I’d like to believe I’m not taking too much license to say, white friend.
The ‘colour divide’ casting was also quite interesting to watch. Having a white woman with whom Willy had an affair added an extra layer to the social commentary that is sadly still recognisable in the social dynamics between black men and black women at times. He may not “lea’ yo ass fo’ a white gurl“, but he may need her to socially advance if this play is anything to go by.
The set design by Anna Fleischle was open, minimal and without unnecessary frills, which for a play with such rich subject matter was the right choice.
It was a hard watch for me as a woman, but personally, I feel it is a harder watch for a man. It felt like a ‘how not to‘ guide for raising young men and I am sure every man in the audience felt a personal connection to either Willy, Biff or Happy at some point while watching the building up or the decay and crumble of the pedestal Willy Loman had put himself on.
The only reason Death of a Salesman didn’t get a perfect score is because it’s a slow burner. But, like the novel Dracula, it creeps up on you, so by the time you know it, you are fully engrossed and involved with no looking back.
Death of a Salesman runs until the 13th July at the Young Vic theatre. Find out more and book tickets here.