Tuesday 21 May 2019

Theatre Review: Death of a Salesman

A thought experiment I often do in moments of quiet boredom (ie at work) is planning what lines from plays I would genuinely get tattooed somewhere on my body. A new winner has emerged: "I don't want change, I want Swiss cheese."

The fact that I've seen Death of a Salesman before but had never clocked that gem of a line, which is so close to my personal brand it's not even funny, is sort of a microcosm of what makes London's current version, at The Young Vic, so *so* brilliant. Directed by Marianne (actual genius) Elliott and Miranda Cromwell and featuring an African American Loman family, this Salesman is the clearest, most moving and profound vision of this play I've ever seen. It's the best Arthur Miller production I've ever seen. Hell, it's one of the best Anyone productions I've ever seen. I absolutely adored it.

As her stunning gender swapped version of Company showed, Marianne Elliott has a gift for updating the classics. Her and Cromwell's decision to have their Loman family as African American is excellent both for the calibre of actors it has brought to the table (see below) and also in the way it brings a different edge to the story. It does two contrary things simultaneously: makes the story more specific to that community at that time and place in history, elevating different moments and making you look at the story in a fresh light, but also makes it more universal. I'm not sure how that works, but it undoubtedly does. The storytelling and vision of what the story actually says is as crystal clear as any production of anything - and certainly any Miller - I've ever seen. It benefits hugely from being absolutely explicit about which bits of the action are real and which are Willy's memories/delusions/whatever you please to call them which previous productions I've seen have not been - an artistic decision I sort of get but which this production more than proves isn't the only interpretation. It's more explicit about what is actually happening to him too, in that it plays up his mental health struggle and the steps that lead to his ultimate fate really effectively. I'm not sure if any changes or additions have been made to the text - I only spotted one tiny one - but if there have been they are enormously effective and completely seamless. This is brilliantly modern version of this play, but equally one that feels utterly timeless.

It is also an enormously effective and gorgeous production. Anna Fleischle's design is stunning. Eschewing the New York house front set that usually accompanies this play, Fleischle's concrete boxes and platforms with their assortment of floating windows, doors and furniture that are lowered into position as required is groundbreaking, totally effective and bleakly beautiful. Her design works with Aideen Malone's brutally stark lighting to amazing effect and is key to the storytelling of the whole show in that it illustrates so perfectly which bits of action are real and which are not. Femi Temowo's music - yes, this Salesman has music - was a surprise but a lovely one and is sparingly, brilliantly used (helps that you've got such a musically adept cast of course). I can't remember a production that looks and feels so different from its source material and traditional staging since, well, Company. Funny that.

AND THEN THERE'S THE CAST. Sorry, but I'm so excited about this group of exceptional people. I'm about to go into raptures over the central four Lomans, but it's worth saying at the outset that the entire ensemble is wicked. Everyone on that stage brings their A Game and it's a joy to behold. But the Lomans, man. The Lomans.

Wendell Pierce is Willy, giving an absolutely heroic performance that is so touching, slightly frightening and absolutely tragic. He makes Willy's demise seem inevitable but you will it not to be with every fibre of your being. Give him the Olivier now. Sharon D Clarke is Linda and fucking hell she's brilliant. The depth of emotion in her performance is astonishing - happy and sad. The final 'I can't cry' speech is incredible (I certainly did not share Linda's predicament and ugly cried for the entirety of it) and her voice, when she sings, as beautiful and soulful as ever. Give her the Olivier now. Arinze Kene is Biff and is majestic; the perfect angry ball of wounded pride, sadness, guilt and blind rage. He also made me ugly cry. Last but not least, Martins Imhangbe is Hap. I saw Imhangbe in a few things last year and always found his work strong and charismatic. Here, though, he's genuinely great, like not so much in a different league as last year but playing an entirely different sport. He embodies the struggle between what Hap is and what he wants to be so perfectly. Nominate him and Kene as a joint ticket for supporting actor and give them the Olivier now.

Oh how I loved this show. It's the most astonishing, heartbreaking, revelatory thing and if it's not towards the top of my end of year top 10 then I'll be amazed. It's sold out, but rush tickets and returns are available and it's entirely worth your time and patience to try and get one. This is a once in a lifetime production that you miss at your peril.

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

I sat upstairs in B19, a seat I booked for £20 in the TodayTix presale for this show.

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