“Classic” is shackled to Death of a Salesman like a keep-off-the-grass sign. As a theatre critic I have got used to taking it on the nod that Arthur Miller’s 1949 drama has a singular importance: that in the hopes and the disintegration of salesman Willy Loman are glimpsed the allure and the peril of the American dream.
This both diminishes and flatters. Concentrating on Miller’s social intent, it is easy to forget how surprisingly off-the-ground the action is, fractured by flashback and nervous tremor. Yet for all the sear of the speeches, the play is sometimes unwieldy and overemphatic. As far as inner lives go, its sympathies often look limited: Linda, Loman’s wife, is so stalwart and long-suffering that she often looks merely like a woebegone accessory to her man’s grief. Death of a Salesman was due for a bit of a shake, and gets it in this very fine production by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell.
Cromwell and Elliott (who last year proved herself a maestro of makeover with her gender-swapping Company) are not the first to cast the Lomans as an African American family. But they make their own triumphant case for doing so. From the opening moments, when the cast sing a spiritual – Femi Temowo’s bluesy music runs a vein of melancholy reflection through the evening – the play sounds ample, reaching beyond one family into history and a society. And from the opening it looks unstable: Anna Fleischle’s design, which dangles chairs and window frames in the air like teasing mobiles, is unsettled to the point of distraction. The action feels subtly, disturbingly rewired. Yet only one verbal change has been made: the University of Virginia, which Loman’s son Biff dreams of attending, was not integrated in 1949, and here becomes UCLA. There is also one omission: an insult – Loman is sneered at as a “walrus” – is removed. In its place is a pause, which poisons the air with the suggestion of a racist jibe.
An outstanding cast suggest a family stuck together but falling apart. Martins Imhangbe gives Happy, the feckless drifting son, a loping charm which makes his feats as a womaniser all too plausible. You see not only the waste but the potential of both brothers, in part scuppered by a society that turns away. When they go out together to dine, they are pointed to a table at the back of the restaurant. As Biff, the favoured sibling, hopelessly wounded by his father’s expectations and his own insights, Arinzé Kene shows why his name is soaring: taut and watchful, he is the more moving because muted.
Sharon D Clarke, always a powerful presence, rescues Linda Loman from the thankless role of perfect appendage not only by sheer force – her anger is commanding – but by the singing voice that suggests she has a language unexplored in her spoken dialogue. Clarke shows how music can not only embellish a role but greatly deepen it. And Wendell Pierce – Bunk in The Wire, making his UK theatre debut – is a magnetic Willy Loman. Slipping from bustle to bewildered breakdown, he is at one moment fluffed up and bellicose, at the next as crumpled as a punched plastic bag. Actors taking on the role in the future will measure themselves against him. Directors will do the same with this significant production.
Like Death of a Salesman (does this make it a trend?), the Henry trilogy at Shakespeare’s Globe has two directors: Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes. Their productions are not motored by a new concept but the strategies of their staging mean that parts of these plays have a new light.
Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V can be seen separately or – on five occasions – one after another in a whopping 10-hour stint. They are performed on a bare stage by a small ensemble cast, who gender-bendingly play multiple roles and will go on to perform the Henry VI plays and Richard III at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The plot of one play runs into the next; a tavern becomes a throne room with no change of scene; a wench becomes a king by the donning of a mantle.
These dramas look more pliable, less purely dynastic than usual; less stuffed with battles and more reflective. Most strikingly – and peculiarly in the theatre, in which capturing the immediate moment is so vital – they are seen to be full of characters escaping the present, their lives awash with predictions and memories. Just before the magnificent “chimes at midnight” scene, in which Justices Shallow and Silence recall the faraway giddiness of their youth, come lines to which I had never before paid much attention. “O thoughts of men accursed!” proclaims the Archbishop of York. “Past and to come seems best; things present worst.” Suddenly his words seem the key to these plays.
It’s lovely to find this arc. But it is the privilege of a theatre critic (who does not pay) to be able to put up placidly with some dull patches in order to do so. This is an uneven offering. The bad news first. Henry IV Part 2 looks terminally dull, a downbeat, meandering continuation of Part 1. Bedi and Holmes have given it the alternative title of Falstaff, as being the dominant figure: Helen Schlesinger is impressive and versatile but too hip-waggingly frisky; she lacks the sad, droll sag of the only other woman I have seen in the part, Ashley McGuire – still for me one of the best of Falstaffs. The Shallow-Silence scenes are also too perky: played standing up, which makes the old codgers look too nimble.
Now the quite good news. In Henry V (or Harry England), Sarah Amankwah comes into her own. As the young Prince Hal in the earlier plays she has a (perhaps intentional) high-pitched lightness. Now she deepens her voice, uses her body like a sword and takes off.
Finally the unmitigated glad tidings. Henry IV Part 1, known here as Hotspur, seizes the stage: rich and reverberant. There is a fine new talent to watch in Nina Bowers (both Poins and Douglas), only two years out of drama school, creamy-voiced and moving like a dancer. As Hotspur, Michelle Terry is incandescent. What a Mercutio she would be. A firecracker, and a cajoler (she won round a toddler in the audience on press day) with an unusual flintiness in dealing with her wife, she makes her trademark a snap of the fingers. Both summoning the dogs of war and defying fate.
Star ratings (out of five)
Death of a Salesman ****
Henry IV Part 1 ****
Henry IV Part 2 **
Henry V ***
Death of a Salesman is at the Young Vic, London, until 13 July
Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V are at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, until 11 October