Joseph Mydell, left, and Wendell Pierce in 'Death of a Salesman'
Joseph Mydell, left, and Wendell Pierce in 'Death of a Salesman' © Brinkhoff Mogenburg

“I still feel — kind of temporary about myself,” confesses Wendell Pierce’s Willy Loman to the imaginary figure of his successful brother. It’s always a telling line in Arthur Miller’s great play; in this superb production, it becomes key to the whole piece. Here the setting remains New York in 1949, but Willy and his family are African American.

The sight of a black family tearing themselves apart in pursuit of a dream that is never really in reach is devastating. Without changing a word, directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell and their outstanding cast find fresh meaning in the text, and the questions about identity and belonging dig deep. But there’s wider resonance to this staging too: though pinned precisely in time and place, it raises questions that reach into today about how we measure success and who is able to partake in it.

Nothing in Anna Fleischle’s set feels solid. The doors and window frames of the Lomans’ Brooklyn home are sketched in; changes of light shift us in and out of memory; snatches of blues and gospel music drift in and out. The edges between the external and internal worlds become blurred. We are in Willy’s collapsing mind, but we are also in a world of fragile certainties in which everyone in the family is at sea.

Willy’s sons, Biff (Arinzé Kene) and Happy (Martins Imhangbe), raised to be popular and to believe in the great American dream, are lost too: “I don’t know — what I’m supposed to want,” says Biff. The long shadows of the past — in the shape of Willy’s guilty memories but also in the shape of American racial history — push quietly into the present.

Throughout, tiny moments in the play take on new significance: Willy’s concerns that people don’t take him seriously; his breakdown in the office of his much younger, white boss; the crucial dinner for Willy and his two boys, in which the waiters move them to a discreet table. Elliott and Cromwell never push these instances hard, but they add up to a texture of subtle prejudice and racial discrimination and give new impetus not only to Miller’s trenchant critique of the American dream but to his understanding of the toll on male mental health of the pressure to “succeed”.

From left, Arinzé Kene, Sharon D. Clarke and Martins Imhangbe
From left, Arinzé Kene, Sharon D. Clarke and Martins Imhangbe © Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Any production of Salesman stands or falls, however, on the quality of the performances. Here they are tremendous. As Willy, Pierce radiates a sort of wired exhaustion. In public, he snaps into breezy sales patter and go-get-’em banter; when alone with Linda, he sags: his arms hang limply and his feet turn in. He finds the humour in the part, but also the defensive cruelty, and he poignantly reveals how Willy can never admit the truth to himself because it negates everything he has believed in. Kene’s Biff is a brilliant study of repressed pain.

And in a play as much about masculinity as anything else, Sharon D. Clarke is immensely moving as the still point of a spinning world. Ever watchful, she battles to hold her family together, tallying figures in her tiny notebook, mending stockings on the quiet. Her cold rage at what is happening to her husband is heartbreaking. A revelatory production of a great play.

★★★★★

To July 13, youngvic.org

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