A devastating journey through the memories and anxieties of a travelling salesman is provided by Arthur Miller in his Pulitzer-Prize winning play Death of a Salesman which has been re-invented by co-directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell at the Young Vic with an African-American family at its centre.
We are in 1940s Brooklyn after the Great Depression and before the Civil Rights Movement where we meet 63-year-old Willy Loman. Loman has been a travelling salesman for 34 years and is now cast aside, his usefulness exhausted. Although humiliated as he stalls in his job, Loman is still deeply clinging to the dream of the self-made man who makes it big. Or at least the conviction that his sons will manage to achieve it, but both the selfish, womanising Happy and Biff, the high school sports star, who seems to have thrown his life away, are disappointments. Willy is cracking under the strain, aware that he has built his life on sandy ground and, with no future to dream about, appears on the verge of suicide.
Although written in 1949, the play in no way feels dated and seems particularly relevant today when a person's true worth is often undervalued. But the drama is rather over-emphatic and unwieldy at times and at just over three hours, has a few longeurs. By making the aspirational Lomans a black family, the production sharpens the social drama. Willy's declining sense of self-worth is added to by the fact that he is dependent on handouts from his white neighbour, Charley. The great scene in which Willy pleads with his boss Howard–who is primarily interested in his new tape-recorder–to be taken off the road and be given a job in New York, acquires a fresh potency: when Howard recoils at Willy's imploring touch, you feel it is as much about his ethnicity as his presumption.
Anna Fleischle's dreamy, hypermobile set heightens the sense of being immersed in Willy's thoughts, switching between the past and the present as he repeatedly returns to crucial episodes from long ago and creates the impression that the entire fabric of his existence is warped. Femi Temouro's score blends religious spirituals with moody guitar music.
Wendell Pierce, who co-starred with Meghan Markle in the hit legal drama Suits and making his UK stage debut here, is a magnetic presence as Willy, avoiding easy pathos to present us with a man torn between private guilt and public anger at the hand life has dealt him. Pierce also manages to convey Willy's tyrannical qualities and the sudden bursts of enthusiasm that mark him as a hopeless fantasist. As his long-suffering wife Linda, Sharon D. Clarke is a model of quiet dignity and radiates single-minded strength. The Loman sons are particularly well played, with Arinze Kene catching Biff's love/hate relationship with his father, and Martins Imhangbe conveying the confused immaturity of the philandering Happy.
This, then, is a compassionate, psychologically acute interpretation that allows us to see a familiar play with fresh eyes.
Death of a Salesman
Plays until Saturday 13 July at The Young Vic Theatre
Box office: 0207 922 2922.Last modified: April 6, 2021