The set isn’t much to write home about in this production of Death of a Salesman, though there are some flourishes that bookend the play as miscellaneous items of furniture, fixtures and fittings suddenly adorn the stage. Otherwise, it’s largely very grey. Fortunately for this production, the blandness of the set contrasts with rather than complements the dialogue and the way in which it is delivered. Although it was interesting throughout, it did feel a little too long.
I note with interest that this production, having transferred into the West End from the Young Vic (all of three stops on the London Underground from Waterloo to Piccadilly Circus) is considered in some quarters to be a ‘politically correct version’. Having sat through it, I cannot see why this is: Willy Loman (Wendell Pierce), is, as ever, a travelling salesman who has been around the block more than a few times, whose all-consuming pursuit of the American Dream has left him, somewhat ironically, rather less fulfilled than he would be if only he would heed the advice of those around him, especially his wife Linda (Sharon D Clarke), to take it easy.
Willy, as portrayed here, is so intense and passionate in his system of beliefs and defending his way of life – if one can really call his lifestyle ‘living’ as opposed to ‘surviving’ – that one wonders if he really is as exhausted as Linda says he is. He is, I hasten to add, in need of some respite, as his condition has negatively impacted on his work, but it appeared to me that his psychological state deteriorated by way of stress-induced depression more than anything else – he remains combative, in more ways than one, with his son Biff (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù). There is no doubting his ambition for greatness for his favourite, and his relative ambivalence towards his younger son, the aptly-named Happy (Natey Jones), elicited audible gasps at one point from the press night audience.
The concept of Willy essentially being treated badly because of the colour of his skin (irrespective of his contribution, alleged or actual, to his company’s bottom line) adds an extra dimension to the production. When he meets the considerably younger Howard (Matthew Seadon-Young), his boss, the conversation is a difficult one to witness – I suppose it always is, but here, the white Howard’s repeated use of the term “boy” to someone who happens to be black but is nonetheless old enough to be his father is bizarre at best and prejudiced at worst. But the race card isn’t pulled out and waved at every available opportunity: so much here is about how father-son relations can be strengthened as well as destroyed.
The thoughts that periodically travel through Willy’s mind are enacted brilliantly: if it is occasionally difficult while the show is in progress to work out what are flashbacks and what are ‘present-day’ scenes, it seems this is deliberately so. The inclusion of songs in this production allows Sharon D Clarke opportunities to use that wonderful and sublime singing voice she has. Her Linda also shines when she dresses down her sons for not following through on a plan to treat their father to dinner.
It’s not exactly a watertight storyline, when one considers the racism of the era. What on earth is Willy doing having an affair with a white woman, Miss Forsythe (Carole Stennett), in Boston, Massachusetts, given that the play is set in the late 1940s? Surely neither party would be so stupid, and to borrow a line from an earlier scene, “attention must be paid” to such matters – we’re talking about an area were desegregation of school buses wasn’t completed until the late Eighties. Minor quibbles aside, this is a fresh take on what has become a classic play, whilst remaining solidly faithful to the original plotline and sequence of events. Worth seeing.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The West End transfer of the highly acclaimed Young Vic production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, produced by Elliott & Harper Productions and Cindy Tolan and starring Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke began its run at the Piccadilly Theatre in London on Friday 24 October 2019, where it will run until 4 January 2020.
Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke play Willy and Linda Loman and Sope Dirisu and Natey Jones play their sons, Biff and Happy Loman.
The cast also includes Ian Bonar as Bernard, Trevor Cooper as Charley, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as The Woman and Jenny, Joseph Mydell as Ben Loman, Matthew Seadon-Young as Howard Wagner and Stanley, Nenda Neurer as Letta and Carole Stennett as Miss Forsythe and Femi Tomowo as Willy Loman’s father and musician.
Elliott & Harper Productions and Cindy Tolan
present the Young Vic Production of
DEATH OF A SALESMAN
By Arthur Miller
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell
16 Denman Street,
London, W1D 7DY
Dates: Thursday 24 October 7.30pm to Saturday 4 January at 7.30pm
Matinees Wednesday and Saturday 2pm