It is often described as one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century, and following an acclaimed run at The Young Vic earlier this year, Arthur Miller’s seminal Death of a Salesman transfers to the West End’s Piccadilly Theatre. With the success of a gender switched Company about to transfer to Broadway, director Marianne Elliott along with Miranda Cromwell, puts a Black family at the centre of this autopsy of the American Dream.
The titular protagonist has put his whole life in to making a life for his sons and wife, despite enjoying the company of other women while out on the road. Willy Loman considers himself to be well known, as he tries to earn enough commission to pay for the roof over their heads and the modern appliances that seem to represent a measure of his success. But brother’s Happy, and in particular Biff, have proven to be a disappointment to their father, and no one can decide who is really to blame for that.
Now in his sixtieth year, Willy outwardly displays episodes of mumbling and severe mood swings, but internally he’s replaying scenes from the past in his mind. How reliable these memories are may be questionable, but it is this aspect of Death of a Salesman which so empathetically captures the fragility of the human spirit and mind.
Anna Fleischle’s inspired design projects blasts of colour and light on to the cold grey set during these flashbacks, while the other characters on stage either freeze in position, or take on stylised poses. It makes this production a very visual exploration in to Willy’s mind, while windows, doors and furniture are all suspended, floating in to the correct position when required.
Wendell Pierce brings a funnier side to Willy than perhaps previous incarnations have done, but still there’s more than enough pathos to elicit empathy for the man who explodes in blistering rows, taking out his frustrations with his own life on his family. Pierce also brings a sense of authority to the role, it feels like he truly understands Willy’s position and successfully unpeels it layer by layer.
Miller doesn’t give the female lead, Linda, much chance to shine, yet Sharon D. Clarke excels in giving the character depth and nuance. In the scene where she tells her sons some hard truths the audience are hanging on her every word, and in the final scene it is Clarke who sums up over three hours in one devastating line. Equally, Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù and Natey Jones, as Biff and Happy respectively make worthy adversaries for their troubled father.
Despite the fact that race is never directly addressed in the script for obvious reasons, the implications come through with stunning clarity in the performance and direction. From Willy’s refusal to accept a job from his white neighbour, Charley (in a charming performance from Trevor Cooper) while at the same time secretly accepting cash from him, to his resentment and jealousy towards the authority figures in his life, we see Miller’s original work take on far greater meaning, and it’s difficult to imagine the production now being staged in any other way.
In Death of a Salesman the Loman’s are striving to live the American Dream, but they are also living a lie, the appearance they project outwardly masks how much they are struggling, in the same way Willy is struggling with the changing world and the end of his career. Marianne Elliott has yet again demonstrated that even the old classics can be given a new lease of life in this simply stunning 21st century reworking of a twentieth century great.