07 November 2019 08:47
Theatre review Connor Campbell Death of a Salesman ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Dates 1st May - 13th June 2019 Price £10-£40 Links & directions A strength of Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell's production is that it makes it clear this sickness doesn't just afflict Wendall Pierce's struggling Willy Loman. Even Sharon D Clarke's pragmatic Linda isn't immune; Willy is her blind spot, her faith in him helping widen the fissures driving the family apart. It's a man's life slowly flashing before his eyes as he dies an existential death – like Scrooge's ghostly visitations, but if Dickens's miser never comes to understand the lesson being taught. The extended arguments that end both the first and second halves are its most electrifying moments, stripped clean of the gimmicky elements that can clutter more minor scenes elsewhere (Miller is probably as much to blame here as Elliott and Cromwell). That this Loman family is African American never becomes the focus of the production.
Aside from having a special claim on our attention and affection for playing the on-screen lawyer father to Meghan Markle's paralegal Rachel Zane in the US TV series Suits, Wendell Pierce makes his UK stage debut with a big fan base already in situ. And there's something fitting about the way that having slotted into the urban battleground of Baltimore in the former series and Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans in the latter he has been cast as Willy Loman, the tragic everyman hero of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949), a man driven to exhaustion at the age of 63 by years on the road, but... This revival of Arthur Miller's great 1949 play gives us Willy Loman and family as not seen before: now they are an African-American family. "We're not changing a word but it is amazing how you hear it differently," says Marianne Elliott, who directs with Miranda Cromwell. Willy is played by Wendell Pierce, the beloved Bunk of The Wire fame, with a soul-reaching grasp, one moment reaching for the stars, the next shouting… Miller, who died in 2005, became a close friend of both Thacker and the theatre and observed with pleasure several productions of earlier work and the London premiere of The Last Yankee here.
Pierce's Willy is not so much defeated by the thankless task of selling (what we are not told; Miller said, "himself") as the tension between hopeless aspiration and cold reality. Happy, attractively played by Martins Imhangbe (pictured below, on the left with Kene), seems bent on repeating his father's life of self-delusion. Does it make any difference that the Lomans are an African-American family? But that's true whether they're white or black or Chinese." This cast come with exemplary experience, Pierce in The Wire, Clarke having recently won an Olivier for Caroline, or Change and Kene fresh from the hit play Misty, which he also wrote, and they make a fine ensemble. Miller's original title for Death of a Salesman was The Inside of His Head and the whole play could be seen as a lyrical poem.
With her gender flipped Company just finished in London – where the show's 35 year-old bachelor Bobby was turned into 35 year-old bachelorette Bobbie – this production of Arthur Miller's play, co-directed with Miranda Cromwell, is turned into an African American tragedy. The result is a transformative, brilliant staging which offers a dazzling new look at a dazzling play, demonstrating once again that Miller's words, written in 1949, can speak across ages, times and cultures. At the centre of it all is Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman, the salesman who for 35 years has driven the roads and highways of America peddling his wares. In Loman's daydreams – echoes and memories of his past life, where he is like a god to his two young sons – Pierce's chest sticks out, all brash and confident. As his faithful wife Linda says, Loman is not a great man, but he longs to be one. And it's a feeling of being trapped which really comes through in Cromwell and Elliott's production. Achieving the Great American Dream may have been firmly in Loman's mind throughout his life, but, we come to understand, his dream could never have been a reality. The play remains a delicately observed family tragedy, and it is this terrific cast which makes the complex relationships sing out. Pierce is magnificent as Loman, alongside the controlled and rock-like Sharon D Clarke as Linda. Arinzé Kene and Martins Imhangbe play off each other beautifully as Biff and Happy the two brothers who are so different. And Kene's mix of emotionally intelligent, yet broken young man makes us understand acutely how his relationship with his father has ruined him. Kene is raw and lost and throughout the play he makes such a clear, remarkable journey to realising what he wants and needs.