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Death of a Salesman review at Young Vic, London – ‘revelatory reframing of Arthur Miller’s play’

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

London is brimming with Arthur Miller at the moment. From the Old Vic to the Yard in Hackney, his plays are everywhere. Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s production of his 1949 Pulitzer-winning play for the Young Vic stands out in that it’s textually faithful while completely reframing the play. Nothing is changed and yet everything is changed.

Elliott and Cromwell have recast the Loman family as African Americans in 1940s Brooklyn, after the Great Depression and before the Civil Rights movement.

Wendell Pierce is superb as Willy Loman, a man whose sense of worth and self is inextricably linked with his ability to provide for his family, to drive into any town and be warmly welcomed. Now, after decades of service, he’s reduced to working on commission and grovelling for his job, and it’s too much for him to bear. Miller’s lines carry a different weight in this context. Willy’s need to be respected and recognised is about something deeper than fear of becoming obsolete. Every “kid”, every throwaway “boy”, every encounter with his dismissive younger boss, every infinitesimal chip at Willy’s dignity lands differently.

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. The production captures the play’s many subtle shifts in tone and time, sliding between the past and present.

In dream-like flashback sequences, the Lomans’ sons, bright Biff (Arinzé Kene) and “philandering bum” Happy (Martins Imhangbe) bound around the stage in football gear, assuming stylised poses. Anna Fleischle’s minimal grey set adds to this sense of slipperiness, with its numerous windowpanes and door frames that descend from above, as Femi Temowo’s melancholy music drifts across the stage.

Pierce is suitably smooth and initially quite jovial as Willy – funnier than most in the role – but he is also cruel when pressurised and desperate when cornered – repeatedly, aggressively silencing his wife. His warmth makes his collapse harder to watch. Kene captures Biff’s complicated mixture of affection for, and near-physical repulsion from, his father. Sharon D Clarke is even better as Willy’s wife Linda, an island of calm and determination surrounded by a sea of hotheaded men, demanding that her sons respect their father, that they acknowledge and understand him.

In Elliott and Cromwell’s hands, the play becomes not just about race but also about mental health, the fragility of masculinity, and the way these thing are so often entangled. It’s impressive how contemporary it feels in this respect.

The cast is exemplary throughout, the performances rich and moving, the production revelatory and atmospheric, and the last few moments, in which Kene and Clarke join voices, are heart-wrenching.

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

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Wendell Pierce, Arinzé Kene and Sharon D Clarke star in a revelatory reframing of Arthur Miller's play