Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s take on Death of a Salesman captures the greatness of Arthur Miller’s play, and at the same time turns it into something that feels astonishingly new.
With a black Loman family, formerly unremarkable lines stick out like sore thumbs. But it’s more than that: it’s a different tenor, a different and more desperate plea.
As it moves from the Young Vic into the West End, it does feel slightly detuned. Lines that previously provided comic relief in an unremittingly crushing show are now more overtly played for laughs. It lessens the show’s impact a little.
But it’s still an overwhelming experience. Wendell Pierce gives a remarkable performance as Willy, full of anguish and oddity, performing almost as if on fast-forward. He bolts through his delivery as if he’s on a different plane from the others. Pierce finds fascinating new interpretations of the famous lines. He unearths them and exalts them. Sharon D Clarke proves yet again her status of one of the all-time greats, as pacifying matriarch Linda.
New to the cast is Sope Dirisu taking over from Arinzé Kene as Biff and, genuinely, he’s amazing. All the torment and conflict of expectation versus reality roils inside him and, eventually, spills out. His cockiness dissipates, and a kind of sadness takes over. Dirisu downplays the anger and ups the disappointment – in himself, his dad, and life in general.
Anna Fleischle’s set is Damoclean: all the stuff the Lomans have been paying off for decades, and the walls of the house itself, hang above with threatening stillness. Unlike in the Young Vic, where the space was more open, here the set feels squashed by the proscenium walls.
Not that it matters. This is a riveting and devastating production that breathes new life into the play.