Young Vic, London – until 13 July 2019
She’s done it again. Following her outstanding revival of Angels in America, and monumental reimagining of Company, Marianne Elliott – with the aid of co-director Miranda Cromwell – has once more shaken the bones of theatreland, getting to the root of Miller’s seminal Death of a Salesman while plumbing fresh emotion and political depths.
Salesman is my personal favourite of Miller’s plays, and my previous experience of it was Gregory Doran and Antony Sher’s verdant yet prosaic production at the RSC (2015). Doran’s vision accomplished that nigh-on-impossible feat of realising the ideas, pictures, thoughts flitting around my brain when I first read the play several years ago. It was like seeing a dream come to life in an addictively eerie fashion. Elliott’s production goes one step further by presenting the vision I wish I’d had. Great artists have the ability to reveal truths hidden in plain sight and Elliott and Cromwell excel in breathing new life into a time-tested piece while feeling every bit the stage classic.
The production is located in a very specific time and place (refrigerators are the latest kitchen gadget; rich Gershwin melodies lull us into a false sense of nostalgia; New York is expanding and neighbourhoods becoming increasingly gentrified), and just as Willy’s past shapes him and haunts him, so too does the socio-political and cultural history of the USA in which the Loman family live. Here the Lomans’ race undeniably plays into the tragedy.
Elliott and Cromwell unearth resonant subtexts in Willy’s work struggles and lack of friends – his assertion that people ‘laugh’ at him when he enters a room takes on a whole new meaning; his boss, Howard, leaps back from a desperate Willy, telling him not to touch him and painstakingly wiping Willy’s fingerprints off his prized sound recorder. In this production I noticed (white) characters’ patronisingly incessant use of the word ‘kid’ in reference to Willy – a lexical slur that made me cringe at every utterance. In the tainted light of racial segregation, the humiliating treatment of Willy leaves a distinctly bitter taste more so than ever before.
Yet the inspection of race in Salesman is not limited to simplistic externalised racism, but also offers insight into the thorny subject of internalised racism in regards to black migrants in 20th Century America. Despite his idealised visions of the pastoral Southern prairies, Biff’s insistence that his work as a farm labourer is what he’s born for (or, in fact, all he’s worth), harks back to ancestral slaves working the plantations. In this sense, with these additional connotations brought to the text, the Loman family are sucked into a vortex of conflicting identities and ideals; the need to maintain links with the past (wonderfully evoked in the text’s ‘pastoral flute’ motif being transformed into Southern Bluesy guitar music), while simultaneously being constrained by such regression on both personal and socio-cultural levels, all the while battling contemporary injustice and ignorance. In this light, and especially when placed side-to-side with Biff’s nihilistic inertia, Willy’s striving for better, for promotion, for the dream, is at once heroic and depressingly futile.
Anna Fleischle’s set is claustrophobic, intimidatingly dark and stark. Doors and windows frame the Loman house, furniture hovers in the ether when surplus to requirements, a stairway can be glimpsed, but is beyond our reach. The uncanny use of space places us within the realms of Willy’s digression, playing with our concepts of reality and imagination – something which is further highlighted in Aideen Malone’s lighting. Willy’s memories play out like snapshots, complete with bursts of Malone’s flash lighting, floating an idealised vision of the past while causing pause for thought in the blank gaps between each carefully positioned pose. We are privy only to the moments Willy wants to remember and as he breaks down over the course of the play those unwanted memories begin to seep into the present most hauntingly.
Talking of another genre-defining Miller production, Howard Davies’ All My Sons, my partner (who was lucky enough to see it back in 2010) said that the director milked every last drop of talent and energy from his cast so that even those in the smallest of bit-part roles gave acclaimed performances. I feel the same can be said here. So assured is Elliott and Cromwell’s vision that the thematics of the piece appear effortless, affording the time, space and empathy to draw nuanced performances from the entire company. Characters that I have previously seen as also-rans (unfairly, or not), such as spineless boss, Howard (Matthew Seadon-Young), or cantankerous neighbour Charley (Trevor Cooper), are given full-blooded performances that round out the play. I was especially taken by the impression that Maggie Service’s Woman gave me; her coquettish giggle echoing throughout the auditorium is truly nauseating, while her snapping at Willy reveals her as a fine example of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Naturally, the Loman family shine. From Joseph Mydell’s insidious and tricksy Uncle Ben, to Arinzé Kene’s sincere turn as fading star, Biff, the company excel as individuals while also gelling in sublime familial reverence. Martins Imhangbe is surely a name to watch, his Happy Loman both charismatic and likeable, while maintaining an air of distastefulness in his debauched womanising ways. Sharon D. Clarke’s Linda may be a doormat, forever in the shadow of her husband and sons, but she demonstrates her unique oratory skill in moments of painful eloquence. Finally, Wendell Pierce gives the performance of a lifetime in his exhaustive portrayal of Willy Loman; erratic, bombastic, pathetic, but oddly endearing, he embodies the ‘small man’, the everyman, while displaying all the quirks that make the individual human. There is only one Willy Loman and, as Linda says, ‘attention must finally be paid to such a person’.
This production will become the stuff of legend, hopefully setting a precedent for future ‘classic’ revivals. Elliott and Cromwell bring out the absolute best in Miller’s text, packing a walloping punch with an emotional and intellectual impact that has been subtextually staring us in the face all along. The characters are truly alive. Wondrous stuff.
Death of a Salesman plays at the Young Vic until 13thJuly 2019.Wendell Pierce, Martins Imhangbe and Arinzé Kene in Death of a Salesman.