Paul T Davies reviews Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman starring Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke at the Piccadilly Theatre London.
The best revivals of a classic play are those that throw new light and insights on the text, without radically altering the lines or context. Marianne Elliot and Miranda Cromwell’s extraordinary revival of Arthur Miller’s classic mints the play fresh, it looks as if it was written today, for our times, and is one of the most moving experiences I’ve had in the theatre this year. Powerfully relevant, the casting of the Lomans as a black family reveals layers of racism, a superb jazz and gospel soundtrack, and makes the play a universal plea for rewriting the codes of masculinity and dreams.
Central to the production’s success is an outstanding, and in places humbling, performance by Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman. He is particularly strong in showing the fragility of the man, slipping effortlessly from blind denial, aggressiveness, love, stubbornness and confusion- at times you can almost physically see Willy sellotaping over the cracks in his life. You want to slap each of the Loman family at some point, and Pierce makes you despair for Willy Loman, but he totally breaks your heart because love shines through as his central motivation. It is, in my view, the performance of the year.
But Pierce is not alone. As his wife Linda, Sharon D Clarke gives another exemplary performance, clinging on to her dignity throughout, the only character who sees the truth of the situation, but unable to prevent her family sliding towards destruction. And her voice- when she sings a gospel number you fight to hold back the tears. This production is the first I have seen that rallies my sympathy for the Loman sons and Sope Dirisu is outstanding as Biff, muscular and with a stage presence that shrinks into the physicality of a little boy when he discovers his father’s infidelity, knowing life will never be the same again as his idol shatters in front of him. And Natey Jones captures perfectly the irony of the name Happy, his promiscuity hiding his denial and inadequacy of his dreams- he will never satisfy his father. Good performances thrum from that stage, Trevor Cooper bringing much needed comic relief as the neighbour Charley, and Ian Bonar an excellent Bernard. A pivotal scene is now when Willy goes to beg his boss for a job closer to home, his boss, Howard, (a hugely effective performance by Matthew Seadon-Young), being much younger and white, clearly not wanting to be touched by a black man. The polite face of racism is exposed in that one scene when Willy gets fired.
The musicality and physicality of the production is extraordinary, the flashback sequences are so clear, snapshots of denial and love, pivotal moments that set the family up for the death of their salesman. The sound design by Carolyn Downing and Musical Director Femi Temowo gives the play a pulse that soars and stops, beautiful work. This is the best interpretation of the play I have ever seen, and for Mr. Pierce’s performance alone you must see it, this is one that will be talked about for years.