Review - Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic

Death of a Salesman
Our critics rating: 
Date: 
Friday, 10 May, 2019
Review by: 

This review of Death of a Salesman is from the Young Vic production. The play will transfer to the West End later in 2019, click here to find out more. 

London's informal Arthur Miller season in The Cut, SE1 - which has seen The American Clock and currently All My Sons playing consecutively at the Old Vic - now reaches its peak with a searing, sensational new production of Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic. In an earlier age, when David Thacker presided over this theatre (from 1984-1993), Miller was virtually the house playwright here - as Thacker's biography has it, he has directed more plays by Miller than any other director in the world.

But his productions didn't look or sound like this. Just as director Marianne Elliott (who co-directs here with Miranda Cromwell) made us recently see Sondheim and Furth's 1970 Broadway musical Company through brand-new eyes by re-casting the lead role of singleton Bobby as Bobbie, we are now invited to view Death of a Salesman as the portrait of a 63-year-old black man undergoing a breakdown as he faces the hard truth-telling of what his life has become and amounted to. It's a blistering awakening.

And changing the race of the play's title character and his family both changes everything AND nothing. The play's the same; the players are not. And so you see the story completely afresh. Of course, you could say that there are likely to be different economic tensions at play, and certainly different ways in which this salesman might have been treated as he made his way visiting his territory in New England.

But then the production is both colour-specific in its casting of this family, but colour-blind in the way other characters approach him and his family: his Boston mistress is white, so is his kindly neighbour and less-than-kindly boss.  

Yet it's a production that proves two unassailable facts: first, it underlines the absolute universality and reach of Miller's story; but secondly it attests to the power of performance and gives some stunning black actors access to roles that have been historically denied to them.

Not everyone thinks that this is appropriate: the late August Wilson, probably the greatest black American playwright of the last century, said in 1996, "To mount an all-black production of a Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans. It is an assault on our presence, and our difficult but honourable history in America; and it is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large."

Yet watching this shattering production at the Young Vic - now the first major London producing theatre to be run by a person of colour, Kwame Kwei-Armah - invites another consideration: that great stories, superbly acted, speak to us all.

American screen and stage actor Wendell Pierce's Willy Loman is heartbreaking to watch as his life crumbles around him and he is powerless to stop it; Sharon D Clarke is a tower of support and resilience as his wife Linda (and of course, if you have this powerhouse singer in your cast, it makes sense to have her sing, too - which she does with a gospel spiritual by musical director Femi Temowo that is both soaring and haunting).

Also magnificent are Arinze Kene and Martin Imhangbe as their sons Biff and Happy; and its lovely to see two veterans from Company, Jennifer Saayeng and Matthew Seaton-Young in the company, too.

This is not the first time a contemporary American classic has been made-over like this - an all-black version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was previously staged in West End in 2009, and Talawa Theatre Company have also done an all-black version of Miller's All My Sons - but this ferociously powerful production is a thrilling rediscovery of a very familiar play.

Death of a Salesman is at the Young Vic until 13th July. 

Photo credit: Brinkhoff-Mogenburg

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