Writer: Arthur Miller
Co-directors: Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
The Young Vic’s revival of Death of a Salesman earlier this year was widely praised for breathing fresh life into a classic, thought by many to be among the greatest plays of the 20th Century. Yet the title does not lie and, for all the production’s touches of brilliance, there is nothing that could have been done to make Arthur Miller’s modern tragedy uplifting. For this reason, it seems like a brave call to install it over the Christmas Season in the Piccadilly Theatre, a venue which normally plays host to crowd pleasing musicals.
Miller’s play was first seen on Broadway in 1949, two years after his All My Sons, also revived in London this year, and there are notable similarities. Both plays begin with families seemingly consisting of a dominant, solid father, a warm, devoted mother and two upstanding grown sons. In both, Miller puts America’s patriarchal society under a microscope, finds the fault lines in the family structures and slowly demolishes them. Both plays reach the same, seemingly unavoidable conclusion.
Wendell Pierce’s Willy Loman is an American Everyman. He is proud, arrogant, entering his 60s and prone to delusions which suppress his disappointment at a life of failed ambitions and missed opportunities. He is the rock of his family, but we learn that, even as the play begins, he is already utterly broken. From his Brooklyn home, he travels throughout the Eastern United States, achieving diminishing sales for an uncaring boss (Matthew Seadon-Young), who has changed his employment terms to commission only. On the bright side, his 25-year mortgage is close to being paid off and payments on his fridge are due to end, albeit, sadly, just after it has stopped working.
His wife is Linda, played as a long-suffering, never complaining homemaker by Sharon D Clarke. She tolerates verbal abuse from her husband and arbitrates in arguments between him and their older son, Biff (an explosive performance from Sopé Dirisu) who has just returned to the city which he hates from working as a farmer in Texas. Biff is the son in whom Willy invests all his hopes for the future, overlooking the extent to which his own fallibilities have undermined those hopes.
The younger son is “Happy”, the nickname reflecting his sunny disposition and Natey Jones makes him a carefree joker, a womaniser who seems unlikely to realise his very limited potential. Willy looks enviously at his successful, benevolent neighbour, Charley (Trevor Cooper) whose son, Bernard (Ian Bonar) has become a lawyer. As the spectre of failure engulfs him, Willy has imagined conversations with his dead brother (Joseph Mydell) and becomes haunted by incidents from his past.
Co-directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, whose previous collaborations include Angels in America at the National Theatre, do not attempt to lighten the pain of what unfolds, but their production accentuates the humour in Miller’s writing and smoothes out the drama’s flow so that the running time feels less than the actual three and a quarter hours (including interval).
Anna Fleischle’s set designs achieve the overall feel of a Brooklyn family home, lit dimly by Aideen Malone, while incorporating the flexibility to divide the stage into segments, thereby allowing swift scene transitions and overlaps between illusions or flashbacks and reality. An unexpected treat comes with the subtle use of music and, yes, we get to hear Clarke’s magical singing voice. Composer and Musical Director Femi Temowo uses soft jazz and gospel styles to build atmosphere and heighten drama.
For sure this is no pantomime, but as a showcase for incisive writing and magnificent acting, it is a rich, rewarding experience and the perfect antidote to an excess of festive cheer.
Runs until 4 January 2020 | Image: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg