Death of a Salesman review – Miller's masterwork is given urgent new life

Young Vic, London
Racial tensions simmer alongside those of class and family as Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke’s American dream unravels

There are two distinct impulses behind this remarkable revival of Arthur Miller’s most famous play. One is to make it a story about the travails of a black Brooklyn middle-class family. The other is to remind us this is a non-naturalistic drama originally called The Inside of His Head. The two ideas sound contradictory but are skilfully reconciled thanks to an inventive, if overlong, production by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell and fine performances from a cast led by The Wire’s Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke.

It is still a play about an ageing salesman who has invested so much in the American dream that he regards failure as a mortal sin. But by making the aspirational Lomans a black family, the production sharpens the social drama. Willy Loman’s declining sense of self-worth is added to by the fact that he is dependent on handouts from his white neighbour, Charley.

The great scene in which Willy pleads with his boss, Howard – who is primarily interested in his new tape-recorder – to be taken off the road and given a job in New York, also acquires fresh potency: when Matthew Seadon-Young’s Howard recoils at Willy’s imploring touch, you feel it is because of his ethnicity as much as his presumption.

This production constantly reminds us that Miller’s play is about a man with a fragile grasp of reality who easily confuses past and present. Anna Fleischle’s design is dominated by skeletal door and window frames that float in the air like one of Alexander Calder’s mobile sculptures. Femi Temowo’s score blends religious spirituals with moody guitar music. And when Willy’s mind is invaded by rose-tinted memories, the action is stylised: his son Biff, once a sports star, strikes heroic postures that prefigure Usain Bolt.

Arinzé Kene and Sharon D Clarke.
Family misfortunes … Arinzé Kene and Sharon D Clarke. Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

One or two details strike me as odd: would Willy, in 1940s Massachusetts, have risked a secret affair with a white woman? But this is an imaginative production that allows one to see a familiar play with fresh eyes. As Willy, Pierce avoids easy pathos to present us with a man torn between private guilt and public anger at the hand life has dealt him. You see this in his abrasive relationship with Charley (an excellent Trevor Cooper) and in his bouts of wish-fulfilling bombast. It is an unsentimental performance and Pierce is memorably partnered by the magnificent Clarke, who makes his wife, Linda, a model of quiet dignity. Only in the speech where Linda says “attention must be paid” to such a man does Clarke bang the table with ferocious emphasis.

The Loman sons are particularly well played, with Arinzé Kene catching Biff’s love/hate relationship with his father and Martins Imhangbe conveying the emotional immaturity of the philandering Happy.

We’ve seen many good productions of Death of a Salesman over the years. This one, mixing the socially specific and the dreamily phantasmagoric, depicts the duality at the heart of Miller’s memory-play with exceptional clarity.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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