As America begins to lift itself out of the Great Depression, William Lowman, Willy, is sucked further into the quagmire of his own personal depression in this classic Arthur Miller play at the Young Vic.
Unable to cope or come to terms with his own mistakes over the years William invests all his hopes and dreams in his sons, Biff in particular, desperate that they become the success that will counterpoise his own perceived failures. As major milestones come and go – his marriage, the birth of his boys, Biff’s success at college football, the house bought and then paid for – more minor molehills become mountains in his path – the fridge breaking down while still on HP, his inability to cultivate his garden.
And central to all is a secret shared by father and son lying like malignant cancer across the family relationships.
This is a play entirely about human relationships. About how a single event can change that relationship and how the audience is left to wait to see what exactly is leading the salesman inexorably to his self-destruction. It is a powerful production with powerful performances from the entire cast. Wendell Pierce (the Wire) as William, Sharon D Clarke (Holby City, Dr Who) his wife, glueing the family together, and Arinzé Kene (The Pass, Our Girl) as Biff all give truly compelling performances. There is a feeling of creeping terror that here is a situation to which there should be a solution. But to which there is not.
The sense of instability, of teetering on the edge, is added to by the time switches from the present day (the Lowmans’ present day) to when the children were thinking about scholarships and their futures some 15 years earlier. Are these real flashbacks or is it just William remembering and misremembering his family’s past. Other characters – Uncle Ben, Willy Lowman’s father – are all in the mind. Or are they?
The unstable nature of the relationships and of Willy’s psyche is exacerbated by the ever-changing set. Floor platforms raise and lower, tables, chairs, windows and doors all rise up and down on wires as the scene changes from living room to kitchen, bedroom to hotel, office to restaurant. And the wires, by accident or design, occasionally seemed to be attached to one family member or another. A puppet unable to influence events for better or worse without the intervention of someone else.
This play runs at over three hours including an interval but it absolutely flew by. It was emotionally draining enough for the audience – well for me at least. I have no idea how the cast can get through it night after night. And on top of that, they have some incredible singing voices too – yes there are a couple of songs properly woven into the drama.
Casting an all black family in Death of a Salesman reflects the time as African Americans were gravitating toward Brooklyn in the first half of the 20th century. But, inevitably, this production, will be compared to that of the RSC of a few years back with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in the lead. For me, this production surpassed even that last great performance. The maelstrom of emotions contained in the play was brought viscerally to life by each and every member of the cast.
This was a five-star performance of a five-star production and the whole theatre standing ovation was thoroughly deserved.
The Young Vic until 13 July 2019