This reviewer is a rare breed as, I have neither seen nor studied Arthur Miller’s classic play, Death of a Salesman. Therefore, this Young Vic production is my first experience of this timeless story, and what an experience it is.
Performed over three hours the production, which has transferred to the Piccadilly theatre after success at the Young Vic, casts The Loman family as African Americans, serving to escalate the difficulty of achieving the American dream in 1950s New York while subconsciously compounding the struggles placed on the protagonists.
The plot follows Father and travelling salesman Willy Loman (Wendell Pierce previously of The Wire and Suits) as his life and mind gradually unravel leading to the loss of his job, flashbacks from the past and delirious visits from his brother Uncle Ben (Joseph Mydell). His wife Linda (Sharon D. Clarke) does all she can to support her husband but believes that Willy’s life is now in the hands of her children.
These children are Piff and Happy Loman. Piff (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù) a once up and coming American football player is now an undefined thirty-four-year-old uncertain of what to do next. Meanwhile, younger brother Happy (Natey Jones) is exactly that as he lives with a cup half full kind of attitude, determined to be number one while striving for the American dream.
Under the direction from Marianne Elliot and Miranda Cromwell the performances from all cast members are something to be admired.
Pierce conveys the process of losing sense with reality whilst maintaining a determination to hide his problems with such conviction that it’s impossible not to be sucked in and pained by the eventual downfall. Alongside him, Clarke is powerful in belief but powerless in reality as she her attempts to understand her son’s actions. She is brutal in her assessment of their lives and through her movement, speech and actions portrays the struggle of being a wife to a troubled man with more honesty and conviction than one thought capable on a cold Monday evening.
As we move towards the crux of the story’s conflict, Jones’s happy smile and rhythmic movements serve for some tension releasing moments and he excels in the flashback scenes where his disappointed for not being put on the same pedestal of his brother pull at the audience’s heartstring via discreet but honest acting. However, it is Dìrísù who manages to complete the most powerful scenes of the night. As we finally discover what impacted his downfall, he shows elements of a man desperate to accept his weaknesses and determined to live to his strengths.
By the end of the show, as the audience rise in elongated and deserved applause, it is clear to see the effect playing these characters has on all cast members. It’s emotionally draining but entirely worth it.
Anna Fleichle’s hanging set serves as a beautiful monologue of memories. Items which are just out of reach but forever lingering somewhere in the abyss reflect Willy Loman, who may wish he could access his memories of his own accord, but can’t as they are controlled by a force more powerful than him. Moreso, Aideen Malone’s excellent lighting captures the blue burn and misery that descends on Willy as he falls into delirium.
Overall, this play feels more relevant now than it may have when it was originally written. In portraying mental health, toxic masculinity and the desire to be number one, it is an invaluable experience and makes it clear to the viewer why Arthur Miller’s classic is regarded as such. Do all you can to see it!
Death of a Salesman is playing at the Piccadilly Theatre until 4 January. For more information and tickets, see the Piccadilly Theatre website.