My third time of seeing (arguably) Arthur Miller’s finest play, but it was the Squire of Sidcup’s first time, and, as you know, you always remember your first time. Miller’s portrayal of Willy Loman, visually crumbling before us all, never fails to hit the heartstrings and I felt especially sorry for the young woman in the row in front, who started crying about an hour before the end and never let up. Since the introduction of the Internet, travelling salesmen like Willy are a thing of the past; old jokes like “I travel in ladies’ underwear” make no sense to anyone under the age of 40. But crushing guilt, bitter loneliness, that ghastly inability to regain one’s former success, and the desperate clutching of the feeblest straws to keep one’s hopes alive, are timeless concepts that everyone encounters at some point throughout their lives.
This production has been a sensational success and it’s not hard to see why. A phenomenal cast headed by Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke, lucid direction from Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, sparse but creative design from Anna Fleischle, evocative and enchanting music from Femi Temowo, all within the inspirational intimacy of the Young Vic, make three hours fly by.
Above the bare stage dangle sticks of furniture that drop into place when required then fly up again afterwards; a meagre window-frame, a small telephone table, comfortless chairs. The only other props are the refrigerator – standing as a symbol for those necessities in life one can never quite afford – and the gas heater, which hides the rubber tubing that Willy might use to end his life. A flight of stairs is barely visible through the back door; there is life outside, but it’s of no consequence to us.
The music, played live by Mr Temowo as he wanders in and out of the recesses of the set, feels of greater significance than in any other production of this play that I’ve seen. When Willy is hallucinating his conversations with his young sons, the music comes in and acts as their unseen responses; it seems to create a balance in Willy’s mind and provides support where, usually, silence is deafening. It also provides Biff’s responses when he’s on the phone to Linda; whether this supplies the support she needs, or whether it’s another example of the deceptions that the family can’t help but feed each other, you decide.
Oh those deceptions… that, for me, was the chief element of the play that this production really brought out. This is a family founded on the thinnest of ice, from Willy’s infidelity in Boston, to the fabrication of Biff’s successes out West, from the true source of Willy’s income to Biff’s kleptomania. Willy’s famous contradictions show that he has no consistency in the truth; one minute the Studebaker is the finest car on the planet, the next minute the goddam thing should be prohibited. When Biff and Happy go out on the pull, there’s not an ounce of truth in the stories they spin to impress the girls. Willy insists that, in his interview with Bill Oliver, Biff shouldn’t pick anything off the floor if Oliver drops it; yet, in a brilliant moment of enhancing the original stage direction, what does Willy do when boss Howard drops his lighter? Lies, deceptions, inconsistencies, contradictions.
Wendell Pierce is an outstanding Willy Loman. Somehow, he can make his physical appearance rise and sink depending on the character’s mood and confidence, visible transformations that instantly convey the weight on his soul; at Willy’s lowest he tremors and closes down like a Parkinson’s or dementia patient. It’s extraordinary to watch. When he constantly complains about Linda or Happy interrupting him, it doesn’t come across as the usual bad-tempered bullying, rather it’s a desperate insecurity revealing that the only thing he really wants in life is to be proud of Biff. Mr Pierce’s stage authority is immense; all eyes on him when he speaks, he gives a performance of superb texture, where changes of pace, mood, direction and power abound.
I’ve not seen Sharon D. Clarke on stage before but I can see why she’s steadily on her way to becoming a national treasure. Linda Loman can sometimes come across as a bit of a mousey drudge, but not this one. She’s a powerhouse of emotions, made strong by years of supporting a good man but a failed one, devoted to protecting him even if it means writing her children out of her life. You never doubt that this Linda would follow through with her threats. But it’s all delivered with supreme control and terrific stage presence.
Arinzé Kene plays Biff with great honesty and integrity; he never really comes across as the sporting hero or powerful businessman that he’d like us to think he is – because he’s not. From the very start, this Biff is riddled with failure; there’s no pretence, no assumption of confidence in advance of his meeting with Oliver, and his respect for his father is always compromised (unsurprisingly). Physically, Mr Kene is the least statuesque of the four family members, and it works to his advantage; that stylised, slow-motion, entry on stage where we all know he’s going to burst in upon his father with his mistress, and there’s nothing anyone can do to prevent it, is a perfect moment of agonising, looming fate, Mr Kene stealing upon the scene with virtual invisibility.
Martins Imhangbe’s Happy, on the other hand, appears every inch the Young Pretender, but without the approval or patronage of his parents; constantly shoving himself forward only to be ignored or slapped down. There’s both comedy and tragedy in his excellent interactions with Mr Pierce; Willy totally ignores the conversational contributions – indeed the presence – of his second son. No wonder the boy has grown into a dissolute layabout whose only efforts go into sensationally impressive chat-up techniques.
The rest of the cast give tremendous support, with finely judged characterisations from Ian Bonar as the “anaemic” Bernard and Trevor Cooper as the long-suffering Charley; Matthew Seadon-Young is grimly unforgiving as Howard Wagner and smartly chipper as Stanley the waiter; and Jennifer Saayeng and Nenda Neurer, as Miss Forsythe and Letta, are made splendidly uncomfortable by the unexpectedly brutal Loman family interactions.
This is a strong, gripping production, overflowing with conviction and majestic throughout. The run at the Young Vic is fully sold out, and it’ll be a different experience when it transfers to the much larger Piccadilly Theatre in October, but I’m sure equally rewarding. Highly recommended.
P. S. I did enjoy and admire the dignity of the curtain call; Mr Pierce, quite rightly, taking centre stage and very appreciatively acknowledging all parts of the auditorium for their response, but also taking care that his fellow performers were fully recovered from the incredible emotion of the final scene before inviting them to join in recognising the audience. I can’t remember seeing that before; it showed a generosity and concern towards the other cast members that fair warmed my heart, it did.
P. P. S. This was my first visit to the Young Vic since the late Pete Postlethwaite’s King Lear ten years ago. Very impressed with its exciting vibe and the comfort and sight lines in the auditorium. However, I was most unimpressed with only allowing us ten minutes for the interval! Ten minutes! You’ve seen how long the queues are for the ladies’ toilets in a theatre – do the maths, it doesn’t add up. By the time you’ve got out of the auditorium, collected your interval drinks, and done a quick wee, someone’s shouting THREE MINUTES LEFT with apocalyptic urgency. No time for a sip, no chance of a half-time chat. I think that’s rather disrespectful towards the audience. We’re not cattle, you know.
Production photos by Brinkhoff Mogenburg