“‘Death of a Salesman’ at the Young Vic is the strongest production I’ve seen for a good while”. Thus began my post-show dispatch by text, continuing: “a great play with a priceless collection of killa lines and concepts, extraordinary performances, an exquisite set, evocative ‘live’ music…etc.”. I was quite happy with this summation, but curious readers may require a bit more detail…
The opening musical prologue is haunting before anything has even happened. The full cast is presented around the space, singing to acoustic accompaniment on the sparse set amidst the eerily suspended furniture and fittings, before we have any context for their existence or their roles. This music is often reprised throughout the piece – without amplification: jazzy, blues-inflected interludes, which enhance both the atmospheric and the aesthetic value of the piece, through its stylish players.
The cast is superb. Much has already been written about the stellar pedigree of Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme, Suits etc.), but he inhabits the lead role of Willy Loman in just the comfortably uncomfortable way that such a salesman might be expected to wear his ill-fitting suit. Willy has great lines that many of us will never have uttered in real life, but which invariably feel so natural and to the point. Arinze Kene, as Willy’s elder son, Biff, is a muscular coil of intensity, making us wonder throughout the unfolding story what his true beef might be with his father and what really happened in Boston all those years ago. He sings like a bird and the audience is as horrified as it is tearful, when he wretches his emotional entrails all over the floor, deep into the second Act. Nobody can seriously argue with Sharon D Clarke’s Linda: strong, often silent, long-suffering, realistic, practical and perceptive wife of Willy (“Be sweet to him – he’s just a little boat looking for a harbour”, she says of her man). But regular London theatre-goers might feel that they’ve seen variations on this performance in “Amen Corner”, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, “Caroline or Change” etc., over recent years. Of course, Ms. Clarke should be celebrated (not criticised) for being so consistently well-cast – especially given her prodigious talent as a singer, deployed again (selectively) in this production to remarkable effect. Willy’s and Linda’s younger son, Happy (engagingly played by Martins Imhangbe) feels less well-drawn than the other family characters, but this is arguably appropriate, in view of his generally frivolous attitude to life and his perennial pursuit of superficial, sexual conquests. His mask of bravado slips from time to time, as does his ‘American accent’, at no great cost to the production. He is also a good foil for his troubled brother, while ultimately being instrumental in creating the critical circumstances that push his father to the brink…”The woods are burning, boys – there’s a big blaze – I don’t want another lecture about FACTS!”.
It is well-established that much of the play’s action is a reflection of what is unfolding…unraveling “in his head” – Willy’s, that is (“A terrible thing is happening to him”). As a newbie to this play, I could barely keep up with the cascade of quotable lines. Like many a salesman, who has lost his way or is too close to (or past) his sell-by date, Willy is a man “way out in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoe-shine”. One of his many insights of self-analysis is expressed when he observes that “I [still] feel kinda temporary about myself” and on a similar note of fragility for a man looking forward to retirement “…certain men take longer to get solidified”. The psychological context of this seminal work is further underscored by the Banquo-like appearances and references to Willy’s brother, Uncle Ben – a Mephistophelean figure, who represents what might have been…(and perhaps what still could be…?), in Willy’s own mind. The strong supporting cast of white characters (neighbours, employers, restaurant staff et al) often inject a racial frisson to the words of the script, as applied to the central, African-American family. The uninitiated like myself might assume that this extra spice is the tasty result of a special edit for this particular cast, filtered through a lens in the Time of Trump – but this is apparently (and deliciously) not the case.
The three hours (including interval) makes for a full feast of drama, at once thrillingly flavoursome, searingly thought-provoking and – even weeks and months after the curtain has come down – totally satisfying. Hurry to secure tickets for a richly deserved transfer to the high table that is the West End!
Note of apology to Mr. Miller and any readers: some quotes (above) may not be precisely verbatim.