Saturday 6th July 2019 at the Young Vic, London.
Death of a Saleman is a hard-hitting and melancholy play. It entertains very little joy but hammers home plenty of gripping drama and it’s in this element that the play remains timeless in appeal. In fact, considering the frightening numbers bandied about on the subject of mental health and particularly figures in relation to men, the play feels incredibly pressing and current. Thanks to an impressively accomplished cast, this particular production of Arthur Miller’s work, directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, is also very moving, infiltrating both the brain and the heart with its relentlessness and probing questions about life, love and family.
Wendell Pierce is desperately tragic and very affecting as Willy Loman, a man losing his grip in every possible way – swimming against the tide and thrashing towards an unreachable shore. Willy is a salesman who has for years believed in a philosophy of being enough of a someone to elevate yourself in your position – believing that simple familiarity gives way to respect and so to success. It’s not bad as far as philosophies go, but it’s tied up in the American Dream which as we know is not a certainty for everyone.
Miller’s play follows Willy’s increasingly unstable late middle age which steers him through a changing landscape of work and client relations while also exploring the fractious relationships at home. The gradual instability of the character decimates each relationship on some level but it’s his self-knowledge which takes a real kicking as his self-inflicted ignorance gradually lifts to reveal a reality he isn’t capable of facing. Willy may not be the likeable chap loved and respected by all who know him after all…
Sharon D Clarke’s Linda is a complex character which gives scope to explore each facet. She’s a loving mother but a reverent wife. She’s an undervalued wife but a stoic one. She’s tender and loyal but also fiercely protective to a fault. She’s both the glue and the silent sledgehammer of the family and what fascinates most of all with Linda is the uncertainty over which element of her character, views or values dominates at any given time. Linda is lost somewhere in the haze of being the dutiful wife, wrapping her entire sense of self around the man she paints as utterly selfless and Clarke’s performance is full of pathos and gravity, proving once more that she is a magnetic force to be reckoned with on stage.
Speaking of unstoppable forces, never have I seen a heart break so viscerally on a stage as with Arinzé Kene’s portrayal of the tormented son, Biff. Kene is an intense force of nature throughout, blazing through the full spectrum of emotion (bypassing joy, naturally) and settling on a heartbreaking desolation in the closing scenes. His performance in the heated altercations and subsequent void is awe-inspiring in the most sincere of ways.
Martins Imhangbe puts a brave face on his invisibility within the family unit as the ironically named Happy. He’s the son somewhat forgotten, tentatively interjecting from somewhere within his brother’s shadow and convincing himself of his own existence via womanising and empty assertions which nobody much heeds. Other undervalued victims of circumstance include the giggly mistress (a fantastic performance from Maggie Service) and the lust-interests of Happy; the velvet-voiced Letta (Nenda Neurer) and the comically underwhelmed Miss Forsythe (Jennifer Saayeng).
Elliott and Cromwell’s production is efficient and free of pomp; the play is primarily naturalistic but includes some stylish physicality to bring montages of past and present together. I’d have liked to see more of that style. Designer Anna Fleischle offers a blank canvas indicative of a domestic space with minimal set on visible threads – a set somehow announcing that windows may be many but views are few. Sound designer Carolyn Downing and Composer and musical director Femi Temowo offer shifting moods and beautiful melodies very nicely too, giving another dimension to an otherwise unembellished play.
My only gripe here may well simply be an issue unique to my one brain and one set of eyes, though I suspect not. Lighting from Aideen Malone is initially beautifully apt but proves problematic in its extended dimness. It’s a colour palette which challenges the eyes to remain open when focusing on a stage so dim and brooding that the brain can’t really be blamed for initiating snooze lock-down. To my mind, atmospheric and brooding should not equate to an oppressive dimness, there has to be variety and a token few brightly lit scenes, surely? Regardless, performances as great as this should not be missed or lulled at the hands of soporific lighting – so I beg of you, bring up the lights now and again!
Within a brilliant cast, it’s Pierce and Kene who come out on top with performances which are equally devastating and tempestuous while Clarke skilfully supports the depth of their exchanges without diverting the spotlight (as we all know she could). It’s a great display of an ensemble which truly compliments each other’s performances, with each combination elevating the capabilities of the scene at play. The curtain call displays a camaraderie among the cast which is surely a reflection of the depth of emotion they must channel for each performance – this is clearly no easy ride and thanks to such a powerful ensemble, it’s not an easy ride for audiences either – and that’s great dramatic theatre.
Death of a Salesman is playing the last of its Young Vic sold out extended run. It then transfers to the Piccadilly Theatre from 24th October 2019 to 4th January 2020 – you can find tickets here.