‘Breathing new life into a classic’: DEATH OF A SALESMAN – Young Vic

In London theatre, Plays, Regional theatre, Reviews by Emily GarsideLeave a Comment

Young Vic, London – until 13 July 2019

Once more for those in the back, Death of a Salesman was never a naturalistic drama. Once more, Death of a Salesman was never a naturalistic drama.

So, for all those admirable productions with a detailed period house set (with no disrespect to the Miller further down The Cut) and played beat for beat as a living room drama (with no disrespect to every amdram production ever) it was never written that way. For Theatre Fact Fans out there it was originally titled ‘Inside his head’ which is both a more intriguing and one that lulls the audience into something of a slightly more optimistic frame of mind for the tone of the evening.

Of course, optimism is in short supply in this Miller play (well all of them honestly) but so is naturalism in this new version. And it is a revelation.

For anyone who has been under a rock for the last couple of years in London theatre, this stripping back to the essence of a classic is one of Marianne Elliott’s (many) talents. And here with Salesman, with co-director Miranda Cromwell, the play is written again from the ground up. Without changing a word.

A dramatic pause for acknowledgment of a leading director of our time co-directing with a colleague she has worked with on a number of productions. And a moment of pause for women in the field leading the way in supporting, collaborating and all around getting the job done?

Back to the play. The key element of this production is of course the recalibrating the play with the Lomans being a black working-class family. While of course, Elliott/Cromwell’s direction brings out the other facets of Miller’s script, it is changing this one crucial factor that shifts it on its axis.

Nothing in the script has been changed, and while the direction plays with the presentation it’s the lens the audience- and the actors- view it through that shifts it. Suddenly the cultural identity is so different. Suddenly every word and gesture is imbued with additional or shifted meaning.

It would take a thesis to unravel it all (and this reviewer is a bit tied up with another of Elliott’s productions for that right now). But what is truly impressive is the weight with which the production runs with a thesis worth of discussion, research and work this team have done to make that so. As much as it’s innate in the changing the Lomans’ identity, this production never heaves under the weight of it, but the work, the knowledge both intellectual and cultural that is behind it is apparent. And so instead the audience don’t need to do the work to make any leap, it’s all there in Miller’s text and the text of the performance.
And so Salesman is given a new life. Both in a direction that writes it back to how it was written. And a re-framing that gives it new life.

With a Black family at the heart of it, every decision, every obstacle is given new weight and inference. And it makes for a fascinating unraveling. Are Willy’s dreams wrong because he’s a man of the wrong skin colour, not because he’s directed his energies in the wrong way? Are his clients disappearing, his bosses recoiling because he is Black? And what of Charley, the one man who does not- he’s now not just a benevolent friend, but perhaps a man ahead of his time? What of his sons? Caught in a world where they can see the struggles clearly, be angry at them, but are decades away from any real progress? When Willy has an affair, it’s with a white woman, and what are the implications of that? And what of Linda, not only a working-class 1940s housewife, but a Black woman, and where does that situate her? But that the Loman’s have managed to own, and ultimately, but tragically, pay off their house, where has that put them amidst their peers… And so on and so on. With every line and gesture.
Meanwhile, the approach of the direction is to firmly ground the play in Willy’s mind. Leaning into the abstract, the flashbacks memories and other intrusions appear as if on a home movie, or an unwanted dream or a moment of hysterical re-living a moment. They are at moments non-sequitur in their appearance and for moments nonsensical. At times there are moments of confusion between past and present. And that finally feels like the play as written once again-the lurching confusion of the mind writ large on the page. This also creates some beautiful imagery- most notably the flashbacks to the sons: each one becomes a home movie flickering in freeze frame before coming to life, and again before disappearing. It’s a beautiful and affecting image that sums up the way the play plays with Loman’s mind.
The direction is beautifully stripped back and deceptively simple, along with the staging from Anna Fleischle’s set speaks to the audience as clearly as any of the company. A hallmark of Elliott’s direction, that the set serves the play but is also a voice in it as well. Again, as with much of Elliott’s work, it’s deceptively minimalist. The greyscale backdrop resists the tendency much staging of Miller goes for- to encase it in trappings of the time. But the set is alive and ‘speaks’ to the story- furniture rises and falls, not quite meeting the set when we expect it to. It falls back leaving only the ominous boiler in full view. The bedrooms are grey blocks, suggesting for the sons a sense of transience, not a lived in space. For Willy and Linda, an absence of comfort in the bedroom, adds a poignant note.  The abstraction works as well to move between the ‘rooms’ of Willy’s mind. He steps out into the yard, and it’s fifteen years earlier with a gesture from him rather than a scene change. Miller’s words, and the rich performances flesh out the world rather than needing physical set. And once again this reminds us, this was never supposed to be a literal text, it’s an interpretation of narrative, past and present filtered through Willy’s mind. And so, we don’t need a detailed 1950s set or fully working kitchen to know when and where we are. The text and the performances do that for us. We see the Brooklyn yard without the need for grass. And the subtle movements of the set offer an additional layer of narrative. As the floating pieces of furniture lower for the final scene it becomes a poignant reminder that the house is paid for, that they are ‘free’. Equally the revelation that the grey-square at centre stage, used in various scenes for various purposes has all along been Loman’s grave is chilling and emotionally resonant.
It’s a production built in layers. Sets speak alongside actors, but also a production united with music. Performed live and composed by MOBO award nominated artist Femi Temowo, music is integral to Elliott/Cromwell’s storytelling. From Jazz numbers to a filmic scoring of the play that reflects Willy’s state of mind- transporting him to other times and places, betraying his confusion and offering a transition between those worlds or states of mind. What it also offers is a layer of cultural identity- Miller didn’t write this for or about a Black family, but there are authentic ways to create that world and music is one of them.
Holding together the production are of course the performances. And it is a production, everything else aside worth seeing for the masterclass performances. Martins Imhangbe and Arinze Kene as Happy and Biff Loman respectively. In particular, their rapport indicates the closeness of the brothers from years past. They play the teenage Biff and Happy with a wide-eyed sincerity. They segue from their present day to the sepia-tinged teenage versions seamlessly but each with physical performances that indicate their youth when in flashback. It’s an interesting and notable point that physically Kene is clearly athletic, gym-honed and instead of the former ‘Adonis’ past his prime post-High School his Biff, in terms of physicality alone, is still holding on to that part of his life. The forever-Jock who never quite moved on. And this-largely probably coincidental- detail of the actor’s physique adds another layer of discussion to Biff and who he is. Buff-Biff is still Biff past his prime, which Kene plays pitch perfectly and fuelled with anger, but he’s also a Biff still holding onto something.
For both sons, there’s an earnestness to their commitment to All-Americanism that is more poignant for these working-class Black men of this time. And Imhangbe, in particular, offers a studied reflective performance that posits Happy as acutely aware of his place in current society, and what he will have to do to overcome it.

Wrapped up in both their identities are elements of toxic masculinity  and the expectations of ‘being a man’. Happy is fuelled by chasing women- and by his own skill at it but doesn’t find true fulfillment there. Biff conflicted by a desire to work the land, and the lessons he’s been taught about success. That both are now doing this in the face of the racial prejudices of 1940s America, that they are the generation after their parents own hard-won battles, but before the strikes for equality of the 1960s- both young men will be ‘past their prime’ before any of those benefits are seen- adds another layer of conflict to where they find themselves. Both caught between their instincts and what they should or truly want to be, unable to do either by their own hand but more so by society’s.
Overseeing all this is Sharon D Clarke whose take on Linda Loman that highlights her strength. Rather than a victim watching life unravel around her, Linda is, in fact, holding everything together. In the text, Linda holds the household, the finances, their sons even Willy himself together. As written, there’s not a moment of weakness in her. And Clarke shows the strength in that- made particularly poignant as a working-class Black woman held hostage by society. She instead takes charge of what she can and refuses to give in to victimhood.

All of this is held together by Wendell Pierce’s central performance as Loman. An affable and charming incarnation of the character. He is funny, and charming and this amplifies his pain. There’s a quiet determination and a quiet deterioration to Pierce’s portrayal, and a frightening and upsetting knowledge that he can see his own unravelling but is powerless to rectify it. He plays the anger, the desperation of Willy with an eye to both the man he used to be and the man he wants to be. The heart of the conflict in Willy is precisely that- who he is, who he wishes he was, and of course how others see him. And Pierce walks that line- that confusion and conflict perfectly. There is something beautiful in the moments he smiles, a relief, a glimpse into something pure and untarnished within perhaps that he lets Willy have. Making it harder to bear when the rest comes crashing back over. Playing madness is easy, playing a mind unraveling and still retaining control of it, that’s hard. And that’s what Pierce does. It’s a considered, careful performance, but also one full of heart- and one that pulls the audience along with Willy, and in spite of no doubt knowing how things will end up, willing things to work out for him in spite of it.

Drifting ethereally in and out of Willy’s mind is of course Uncle Ben. Played by Joseph Mydall in a resplendent white suit and hat. His outfit marking him out clearly as ‘other, ethereal’ in ever since in Willy’s mind. The unattainable, but also the antithesis of what Willy has become, even what he aspired to be- Ben is too larger than life, outside the norm while Willy has always longed to just belong. While Ben has embraced his difference, embraced risk, Willy has shied away…and the question left hanging about which was safer remains. (Theatre Fact Fans might be pleased to note that Mydall was, of course, original Belize in Angels in America, in a neat colliding of theatrical links we know and love…and that suit wouldn’t have been out of place on him either).

It is the strength of the directors that despite the concept-driven idea behind the production, it is the performances they let carry it. There is enough going on with the layers of meaning attached to this version of the play. There is enough to take in, to work with in the staging. But none of it drowns Miller’s words for one second. Both the performances and the direction serve the writing and that’s vital. Plays become enduring classics for a reason, and this might breathe new life into this classic, but Elliott/Cromwell are mindful to respect and work with the elements that made it so.
Some plays, moreover some productions are made to hit you over the head. Some seep into your bones instead. And that’s what Salesman does. Intellectually it doesn’t batter you with questions, with provocations, even in this incarnation it just sits with those questions, those statements, letting them unravel and go home with an audience. Equally the emotion is never piled on, it’s insidious, slowly seeping in and building. And so, when it hits the effect is devastating.
And that really, is the mark of re-writing a classic.  That really is the point of revival. Another Miller will be along in a minute (heck there’s one up the road if you need a double bill, though I don’t recommend it for a happy state of mind). There will always be more revivals, always be new ways to re-write the classics. But some have sticking power. And just imagine, if this was the first version of this play you got to see…that’s a powerful thing.
Epilogue
I’m still enjoying doing these for my own enjoyment. I’ll keep it short because i appreciate this review is almost as long as the play itself.
I struggle with classics. I’m not ‘classically educated’ in the ‘canon’ having skipped a drama A Level and Degree. Having not been raised in a theatre-going world. I worry that I don’t understand them. That there are huge gaps in my knowledge. And I fear writing on them or speaking about them for that. So I’m forever grateful for productions like this, which present them simply as intended; as a play. With a new approach that makes us do it the old fashioned way, by watching a story unravel.
And that’s what I also took from this revisiting a ‘classic’; the strength of ‘old fashioned theatre’ and ‘old fashioned storytelling’ There’s nothing old fashioned in this production. Arguably there’s nothing old fashioned or dated in Miller’s writing- that’s why we go back to it. But amid a sea of what I charmingly term ‘pretentious wank’ it is a revelation to be able to sit, with characters and hear their stories, be moved by them, learn from them, think because of them. That’s why I love theatre, love writing. And it’s nice now and then to be reminded you can have a fresh approach, but still, tell stories. Still, unite an audience in a room and move them with that. It’s simple and so difficult. And that’s why gasp-crying at the end of Salesman is so powerful. And why I was really grateful to encounter it when I did; a reminder I don’t, we collectively don’t have to bow to trends and indeed pretentious wank. The power is still in stories. Told well.
Death of a Salesman has sold out! It runs until 13th July and The Young Vic puts £10 tickets on sale weekly. See their website here

Disclosure: I purchased these Death of a Salesman tickets myself.

I have a Ko-Fi account should you wish to contribute. Here

Emily Garside on RssEmily Garside on Twitter
Emily Garside
Emily Garside is an academic and theatre writer. Following a PhD in depictions of HIV/AIDS in theatre, she decided to move on from academic writing to take her writing about theatre to a wider audience. By day a research advisor and by night theatre writer, playwright and lover of all things theatre. Emily blogs at emilygarside.com and tweets at @EmiGarside.
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Emily Garside on RssEmily Garside on Twitter
Emily Garside
Emily Garside is an academic and theatre writer. Following a PhD in depictions of HIV/AIDS in theatre, she decided to move on from academic writing to take her writing about theatre to a wider audience. By day a research advisor and by night theatre writer, playwright and lover of all things theatre. Emily blogs at emilygarside.com and tweets at @EmiGarside.

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