Review – Death of a Salesman, Young Vic, 3rd July 2019

Death of a SalesmanMy 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.

WillyThis 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.

Willy and CharleyAbove 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.

Willy and the boysThe 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.

BrothersOh 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 PierceWendell 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.

Arinze Kene and Sharon D. ClarkeI’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.

Ben and WillyArinzé 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.

Happy chats up Miss ForsytheMartins 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.

Bernard and WillyThe 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.

That WomanThis 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.

Linda and Willy with BenP. 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.

 Matthew Seadon-Young and Wendell PierceP. 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

Review – Death of a Salesman, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th June 2017

Death of a SalesmanThey say good things come to those who wait… Originally we had tickets to see this on 13th April, but, as you no doubt are aware gentle reader, everything was cancelled due to the sad and unexpected death of Tim Pigott-Smith, who was to play Willy Loman. I can only admire the tenacity and integrity of the cast and creative team for rescuing the production from the jaws of tragedy and creating such a brilliant phoenix to rise from the ashes of a terrible mixed metaphor on my part. The performance is dedicated to Tim Pigott-Smith, whom I only saw on stage once, ten years ago, playing Henry Higgins in Pygmalion at the Oxford Playhouse and damn good he was too.

DOAS1I’ve also only seen Death of a Salesman once before, back in 1979 at the National Theatre with Warren Mitchell as Willy Loman. I remember it like it was yesterday, and as you can imagine, Warren Mitchell was all kinds of special. But I do also remember that the production itself was a little iffy; I didn’t believe the characterisations of Biff and Happy at all, and by trying to use up all the large Lyttelton stage, it just all felt a bit thin. No such problem here, with this magnificent production by Abigail Graham, where all Willy’s hopes and aspirations, his past and present relationships with his wife and his sons, his humiliating dismissal by his boss, and his sordid little affair all take place inside a claustrophobic boxed set, which really emphasises what a little person Willy Loman is. The lights may proclaim “Land of the Free”, in homage to Willy’s pursuit of the American Dream, but they have a tendency to short-circuit and fail; and when the Lomans are finally “free” – of their biggest debt of all, the mortgage – Linda’s there to endure it on her own.

DOAS2Like many others, I read it at school; and judging from the number of (very well-behaved) students in the Royal last night, it’s not going to be leaving the syllabus any time soon. You couldn’t describe it as Arthur Miller’s masterpiece; but it’s a very fine piece of writing nonetheless and in Willy Loman he created a memorable figure of the little cog in the big wheel, who regrettably deludes himself into thinking he’s a much bigger cog. A mass of self-contradictions (“Biff is a lazy bum!” “one thing about Biff – he’s not lazy”); blind to the faults of his beloved older son (indolence, kleptomania, law-breaking); ignoring the approaches of his younger son (“I’m losing weight, you notice, Pop?”); intolerant of his wife Linda’s interjections, biting the hand that feeds him, sucking up to a system that has destroyed him, and living up to the maxim that it isn’t enough to be liked, you have to be well-liked – Willy Loman is one helluva creation.

DOAS3Older son Biff, too, is a chip off the old block, although both of them would absolutely deny it. A fantasist, chasing the American Dream in his own, more lethargic way, envisioning a world where he and Hap can work together without actually having to work. Whereas Willy would go away for weeks on end selling as hard as he could, Biff would rather get up late and cross his fingers. They all want the trappings of the American Dream, but only Willy spends his life actively trying to achieve it; and largely failing, as all the HP payments on the various household items seem to be in a constant state of arrears. Happy will go along with anything so long as there are girls involved.

DOAS4If there was ever any doubt that Nicholas Woodeson’s performance as Willy would be under some kind of Tim Pigott-Smith shadow, that doubt is cleared within one nanosecond of Mr Woodeson struggling home from a terrible day at work, through the auditorium, up the stairs, and pausing before walking on to the stage. He immediately grabs our attention and doesn’t let go for the next three hours. Railing against the injustices of the world, this Willy is very realistic, very true-to-life; his flights of fancy and his excursions into reminiscence come across as the early stages of dementia. With the small enclosed set, there’s nowhere for these vivid flashbacks to go other than right in our faces, making them seem even more like reality and less like mere memories. This Willy Loman is visibly captivated by the romance of the American Dream; when his sons outline a possible plan his eyes slowly light up and widen as he grasps the hope it offers with all his mettle. When the grandeur inevitably gives way to the inconsequent, he barks his bitterness furiously like an abused dog. It’s a fantastic performance; very powerful, incredibly moving, totally pathetic (in the best meaning of the word).

DOAS5Watching George Taylor’s performance as Biff made me realise this was the first time I’d really appreciated quite how damaged the character is. He suffers mental fallout following his unfortunate dropping in on his dad and Miss Francis in a hotel in Boston in a beautifully played scene by Connie Walker, refusing to go anywhere without her new nylons, and Mr Taylor, dumbstruck into almost a coma of confusion. Mr Taylor looks like the great American hope with his football prowess and his Uni of Virginia trainers, but strip a layer of veneer away and he’s just the sad case waiting five hours at Bill Oliver’s office without hope of recognition. Mr Taylor takes you on Biff’s journey of self-realisation; you hope it’s not all self-delusion but when it so obviously is, he makes you appreciate what a straightforward no-hoper Biff is. I thought he was superb.

DOAS6Tricia Kelly’s Linda is long-suffering, optimistic, and above all, undemanding of any real attention from her husband. When he returns at the beginning of the play, she neither offers nor expects any warmth from him; yet she remains completely loyal to him throughout, in sharp contrast to his affair which we assume she never finds out about. I very much enjoyed her scenes with the sons when she finally starts to bite back at them for their thoughtlessness. Ben Deery is excellent as Happy, always the sidekick in the younger days, now the debonair smoothie setting up the girls for a night on the town. All the minor roles were very well performed, particularly the aforementioned Connie Walker, all barely concealed sexual naughtiness, and Thom Tuck as the self-centred Howard, droning on about his family voice recordings and dismissing Willy without a thought.

DOAS7A superb production – and a true testament to the idea that the show must go on. It’s halfway through its tour at the moment, with Edinburgh, Truro, Guildford and Oxford still to come. A must-see.

P. S. “So how did he die?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle as we walked home afterwards. “Well, he…” I replied, but then stopped short. I cast my mind back. Actually, how did he die? He seemed to just stop, and drop. Heart attack? Arthur Miller has him driving hell-for-leather into a crash in the goddam Studebaker, but there was none of that here. But somehow it doesn’t matter. You know Willy’s going to die from the moment you first read the first word of the title. That’s no surprise. The production takes the deliberate view that how Willy dies is the least important thing in his story. And I’m rather inclined to agree.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan