Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s production of Death of a Salesman is a revival of a classic that, in many ways, justifies revivals of classics. By making the Loman family African-American and preserving the original late 1940s time period, but changing close to nothing of the original text, the production shows how identical words, phrases and actions have very different meanings when spoken or performed by different people. Basically: context is everything.
And it’s the context that helps explain Willy Loman’s (Wendell Pierce) inner unravelling as he negotiates a society that will (with provisos) accept him for as long as he’s an effective cog in the capitalist machine, but neglects, belittles and disrespects him in pretty much every other sense. Examples of the micro and major aggressions the Loman family are subjected to appear again and again throughout the story. Sometimes, it’s a deliberate and overt action, as when the white waiting staff move a table out of a bar’s main area so that Willy, Happy (Martins Imhangbe) and Biff (Arinzé Kene) are seated out of sight and away from the other customers. At others, it’s an involuntary reaction like when Howard Wagner (Matthew Seadon-Young), Willy’s much younger, white boss, visibly flinches at non-aggressive physical contact between the two men, or wipes his tape-recorder with a handkerchief after Willy accidentally touches it.
Yet despite its focus on the outside events weighing down on Willy, the production is in fact strongest in taking its audience deep inside the ageing man’s head. Anna Fleischle’s set design, in a neat approximation of Arthur Miller’s extensive description of how the stage should look, has the wall-less components (window frames, floors, furniture etc.) of the house slide in, out and alongside each other. The entire setting feels, almost immediately, more like a metaphor for Willy’s mind, in a similar vein to the dream houses of psychoanalysis, than an actual dwelling. At one point, Willy retrieves a near-empty bottle of milk from the duck egg blue fridge which, almost immediately, starts to slowly drift away from him towards the back of the stage. Everything here is as it should be, both in terms of Miller’s vision and the bog standard ordinariness of a real-life house, but also subtly wrong, like: Dalí-dripping-clock wrong.
Pierce’s Willy Loman is an unsettling mix of soft, almost-boyish, charm and humour and little explosions of anger, expressed in sudden shouting or vague attempts at physical violence. The fact he so obviously can’t control when and how these explosions take place makes watching him a tense affair, like spending time with any person prone to randomised yelling or eruptions of bad temper. And yet, each time he retreats back into his pliable, mumbling older self, the urge to bundle him up and take care of him – in the same way his wife Linda (Sharon D. Clarke) does – is overwhelming. In fact, if there is one person on stage who eclipses Pierce, it’s certainly Clarke. While the men around her all flail in various ways, she increasingly appears to be the only person with a strong sense of purpose or definitive moral code. She also, alongside Kene, provides the play with an incredibly moving finale – a moment with a genuine emotional power not always present throughout the whole piece.
Indeed, the best thing about this production by far is the cast, all of whom are performers that would do amazing things (perhaps even better things) if they just fell from heaven and landed on an entirely empty stage. Aside from the decision to make the Lomans African-American, there’s not an awful lot here in terms of its direction, particularly artistically-speaking, that’s especially noteworthy or radical (compared to, for example, Jay Miller’s recent production of The Crucible at The Yard). The exception being the beautifully choreographed movement in the younger Happy and Biff in Willy’s memory scenes where the boys run, tumble, catch and play fight in sync with the click click click pattern of old-fashioned slide projector (fight and additional movement support is by Yarit Dor).
In many ways, it’s actually a very straight production of a classic, right down to how it makes use of Miller’s cited blue and orange lighting. There’s a definite gloss to the staging, the kind of gloss Sam Mendes’ The Ferryman also had. It’s a West End-ready sheen that lets you know: this is a high quality production of a high quality drama. Or rather (if you want to be particularly cynical): this cost a lot of money. By choosing to arrange the seating so the audience are face-on to the stage and its roughly rectangular design, the production is, of course, ready prepared to be uplifted from The Cut and placed down inside any of the pros arch theatres of the West End. But in doing so, it avoids making use of one of the most interesting – and often brilliant – aspects of the Young Vic space, namely how its one of the few large theatres where work can be staged in the round or in traverse and, in doing so, better immerse the audience within the play. Ola Ince’s truly great recent production of The Convert made excellent use of the space, not just in placing the audience around four sides of a central square stage but in using all the corner walk ways so that sound, movement and, at points, danger came at you from all directions. It also made The Convert feel like it was specifically designed for the Young Vic; it had to be here, in this space, now.
In contrast, there’s a coldness to Elliott and Cromwell’s Death of a Salesman. A faint standoffishness that comes when presented, at a distance, with a high block of charcoal-grey shapes and no obvious way to even see what’s there. It’s got more polish on it than an American Dream automobile, but it remains the kind of theatre that feels like it never quite wants to let you in.
Death of a Salesman is on at Young Vic Theatre until 13th July. Tickets and more info here.