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Death of a Salesman starring Wendell Pierce at the Young Vic, London – review round-up

Wendell Pierce in Death of a Salesman at Young Vic, London. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

London’s had its fill of Arthur Miller in the last few months – The Price [1] in the West End, The Crucible [2] at The Yard Theatre, The American Clock [3] and All My Sons [4] at the Old Vic. Now, this mini-season of Miller draws to a close with the most anticipated revival yet: Marianne Elliott’s staging of Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic.

It’s Miller’s most famous, most produced play, an allegorical tragedy about an ageing salesman – the famous Willy Loman – and his cracking under the strain of the American dream. In Marianne Elliott – the director behind War Horse [5], Curious Incident [6], Angels in America [7] and Company [8] – it’s got a director that knows how to score a hit. Her production, co-directed with Miranda Cromwell, runs until mid-July.

What makes their revival unique is that it turns the Lomans from an aspirational white family into an aspirational black family, injecting a seam of prejudice into the play. The Wire’s Wendell Pierce leads a starry cast that also includes Sharon D Clarke and Misty’s Arinzé Kene [9].

But are the critics sold on Death of a Salesman? Or does Cromwell and Elliott’s radical reimagining mar Miller’s masterpiece? Does London’s mini-season of Miller end on a high?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Death of a Salesman – A cast-iron classic

Joseph Mydell and Wendell Pierce in Death of a Salesman. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Death of a Salesman won both the Pulitzer prize and the Tony award for best play on its premiere in 1949, and revivals have regularly scooped up awards over the years. Do the critics still agree after Elliott’s switcheroo? Is Salesman still superb with an African-American family at its heart?

It definitely is. “Death of a Salesman is at once a study of a man coming undone, a memory play and a deconstruction of American capitalism – a masterful dramatic balancing act,” writes Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★ [11]), while Holly Williams (Independent, ★★★★ [12]) just calls it a “cast-iron classic”.

And the decision to place a black family at the centre of the action realises new resonances in the play, most critics concur. It “sharpens the social drama” according to Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★ [13]) and “allows the play to resonate with African-American experience in a way that has rarely been seen before” according to John Nathan (Metro, ★★★★★ [14]).

“The sight of a black family tearing themselves apart in pursuit of a dream that is never really in reach is devastating,” comments Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★★ [15]). “Without changing a word, directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell and their outstanding cast find fresh meaning in the text, and the questions about identity and belonging dig deep.”

They find “new depths to the play,” says Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★★ [16]), who is not the only reviewer to remark upon the uncomfortable evolution of one particular moment. “Never easy to watch, the scene in which Willy begs his young, white employer Howard for easier work is excruciating.”

The jury is unanimous. It’s a “thrilling rediscovery of a very familiar play” according to Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre, ★★★★★ [17]), and “a dazzling new look at a dazzling play, demonstrating once again, that Miller’s words, written in 1949, can speak across ages, times and cultures” according to Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★★ [18]).

“Seventy years on, how this masterpieces resonates and devastates afresh,” cheers Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★ [19]), while Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★★ [20]) lauds the creation of “something fresh, compassionate and ultimately devastating”.

Death of a Salesman – Dreamily phantasmagoric

Wendell Pierce in Death of a Salesman at Young Vic, London. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg [21]
Sharon D Clarke and Wendell Pierce in Death of a Salesman. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Recasting the Lomans as a black family isn’t the only directorial departure that impresses the critics, however. There’s also widespread praise for how Cromwell and Elliott embrace the play’s febrile, fragile grip on reality.

“The production captures the play’s many subtle shifts in tone and time, sliding between the past and present,” writes Tripney, while Lukowski raves about the “the extraordinary sequences set in the depths of Willy’s mind.”

“I have literally never seen these bits done well before,” he says. “But here they’re staged with a kinetic Lynchian surrealism, the memory figures surrounding Willy sped up, heightened and jerky. He crashes from one reminisce to another – sometimes with a near indistinguishable intrusion from the present – falling through his own crumbling mind at a terrifyingly vertiginous pace as Anna Fleischle’s dreamy, hypermobile set rises and falls around him. It’s stunning.”

“We’ve seen many good productions of Death of a Salesman over the years,” chimes Billington. “This one, mixing the socially specific and the dreamily phantasmagoric, depicts the duality at the heart of Miller’s memory play with exceptional clarity.”

Key to this effect, most critics acknowledge, is Anna Fleischle’s design, which is “extraordinary” for Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★★ [22]), “wonderfully ethereal” for Cavendish and “brilliant” for Hitchings.

“Nothing in Anna Fleischle’s set feels solid,” describes Hemming. “The doors and window frames of the Lomans’ Brooklyn home are sketched in; changes of light shift us in and out of memory; snatches of blues and gospel music drift in and out. The edges between the external and internal worlds become blurred. We are in Willy’s collapsing mind, but we are also in a world of fragile certainties in which everyone in the family is at sea.”

It’s only Williams that disagrees. For her, Fleischle’s set often feels “awkwardly clunky, like an oft-repainted black box theatre has been plonked on the Young Vic’s main stage”.

Death of a Salesman – Pitch-perfect Pierce

There’s been no shortage of stars in the recent revivals of other Arthur Miller plays. Sally Field and Bill Pullman in All My Sons, David Suchet in The Price. Here, Cromwell and Elliott’s cast is led by American actor Wendell Pierce, best known from his role in HBO’s hugely successful crime drama The Wire. And led, most critics agree, superbly.

Wendell Pierce: ‘Willy Loman is as exhausting a role as Lear. I’m knackered’ [23]

“Pierce is riveting in the lead — a man who in his mid-sixties becomes painfully aware that he has built his life on sandy ground,” writes Hitchings. “From the outset his movements suggest the shambling exhaustion of a lost bear, and Pierce is good at conveying an air of crumpled defeat. But he also nails Willy’s tyrannical qualities and the sudden bursts of enthusiasm that mark him as a hopeless fantasist.”

“As Willy, Pierce radiates a sort of wired exhaustion,” adds Hemming. “In public, he snaps into breezy sales patter and go-get-’em banter; when alone with Linda, he sags: his arms hang limply and his feet turn in. He finds the humour in the part, but also the defensive cruelty, and he poignantly reveals how Willy can never admit the truth to himself because it negates everything he has believed in.”

“It is not always a towering performance, but it certainly contains moments of shuddering vulnerability,” qualifies Williams, but others disagree – he’s “heartbreaking” according to Shenton, “unbearable to watch” according to Nathan, and “magnificent” according to Crompton.

There’s praise for Pierce’s co-stars, too. Sharon D Clarke, as Willy’s wife Linda, is “immensely moving” for Hemming, “an island of calm and determination surrounded by a sea of hotheaded men” for Tripney, and simply “something special” for Treneman. Her scorn, says Williams “could fell an oak tree”.

Arinzé Kene – writer and star of last year’s Misty [24] – is also admired as Willy’s son Biff. He provides “a brilliant study of repressed pain,” writes Hemming, while Crompton calls him “emotionally intelligent” and Tripney applauds how he “captures Biff’s complicated mixture of affection for, and near-physical repulsion from, his father”.

Death of a Salesman – Is it any good?

Martins Imhangbe and Arinze Kene in Death of a Salesman. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg [25]
Martins Imhangbe and Arinze Kene in Death of a Salesman. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Oh yes. It’s more than good. The final instalment of London’s mini-season of Miller might just be its finest. Five-star ratings from the Times, the Telegraph, Time Out, Financial Times, Evening Standard, Metro and more – and four stars everywhere else – suggest that this is one of the productions of the year.

Miller’s play remains a masterpiece, but Elliott and Cromwell’s African-American reimagining adds a riveting extra resonance. Fleischle’s design deftly delivers the drama’s delves into Willy Loman’s collapsing mind, and Pierce, Clarke and Kene provide powerful performances as well. A mighty Miller revival, by all accounts.