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Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic
By Arthur Miller
Young Vic theatre, London SE1 until July 13
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Being a modern classic and a dreaded 'set text' in schools has meant that Miller's great play has endured many productions burdened with the deadening reverence of a trip to Chapel. Here, Marianne Elliott, who co-directs with Miranda Cromwell, reinvigorates the piece by downplaying the focus on the play as a cautionary tale about how capitalism grinds down the Little Guy and instead focuses on how this is essentially a play about a middle-aged man who has lost his grip on reality. It is revelatory and heart breaking.
After collecting a bucketful of gongs for Company and Angels in America, Elliott's winning streak continues unabated. She is now among a handful of directors whose work is a must-see.
As Willy Loman she has brought over The Wire's Wendell Pierce and he inhabits Willy so totally, and with such quiet insistence, that you can't imagine anyone doing it better. When he shuffles on, he is patently exhausted, and we see soon see that he's lost his grip.
While Anna Fleischle's pared down set is a clear tribute to the 1940s original, here the furniture is suspended mid-air. When flown in it hovers longer than it should and insinuates itself onto a scene. It's a perfect way of visualising the fluidity of Willy's grasp in the world, past and present collide all the time and he can't remember what car he was driving when he went off the road or even it if did happen.
Willy just wants his two sons to be "rugged and well-liked" after which he thinks the American Dream will be theirs for the taking. "Thank Almighty God you're both built like Adonises" he says and the casting director takes this to heart when she cast Arinzé Kene and Martins Imhangbe. They have the acting chops (Kene recently Olivier nominated for his solo piece) as well as the abs, however. Imhangbe cleverly makes Happy's boyish ebullience come across as irritating evasiveness, and it works.
Kene shines too in the demanding role of Biff, the eldest son, who is so pivotal to the plot. His impulsive stealing of a pen from a prospective employer echoes the unhinged nature of his father.
Likewise Joseph Mydell deftly reveals the empty shell that is Willy's Uncle Ben. For he is just a dapper conman and ghost-like he appears mouthing platitudes and egging Willy on. Trevor Cooper too is superb in the key role of the neighbour Charley, the antidote to Willy. Pragmatic, down to earth and drily sardonic, he's everything Willy needs to be and his unwavering support is touching.
Sharon D. Clarke's charismatic gravitas might seem odd casting as Linda, the mother but she understands that the source of Linda's frustration is how Willy is taken for granted by everyone. She is no little wife and is fierce in her determination to call out her sons for what they are. It's a gloriously unsentimental interpretation. At the end when she says "I can't cry", the whole audience is by now just doing that.
Elliott rather cleverly doesn't waste the fact that she has two great vocalists (Clarke and Kene) in the cast and she bookends the piece by having them lead the cast in a heart breaking rendition of the melancholy gospel hymn 'When the Trumpet Sounds'. It immediately signals to us that Elliott is going somewhere else with this. In short, a triumph.