A heavyweight cast join forces with a heavyweight writer to create a tour de force in theatre; an intoxicating mix of style and attitude. Not to be missed.
The cult of celebrity does sometimes work in mysterious ways; my earliest recollection of Arthur Miller was not as a great 20th Century playwright. But more as the third husband of Marilyn Monroe; a nerdy, bespectacled egghead in the wrong relationship.
It looked a monumental mismatch of two very different legends. I’ve happily learnt otherwise down the years. And now this stunning Young Vic production has transferred to the West End, Miller’s work can be savoured by a much wider audience. Death of a Salesman premiered on Broadway in February 1949, and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony award for Best Play. For a story that’s now 70 years old it still feels remarkably fresh; universal themes are explored in a riveting study of family life that will strike a chord with everyone.
Willy Loman (Wendell Pierce) is a salesman entering the twilight of his working life. He dreams of living in a house that he owns and a washing machine that doesn’t break down. He laments another failed sales trip; wife Linda (Sharon D. Clarke) urges him to ask for a settled job at the New York office. Sons Biff (Sope Dirisu) and Happy (Natey Jones) are home visiting. Willy is frustrated by their lack of ambition. The errant sons bemoan their lot in life and dream of buying a ranch out West. But then a scene from the past plays in Willy’s mind: Biff and Happy are bright college kids brimming with potential. They josh with their lovable bear of a father who plans to start his own business. But reality bites and we are back in the present. Regular flashbacks depict the story of a family undone by broken promises and wasted opportunities. Willy is convinced good things happen to good people and a strong work ethic will see him through. But will that be enough?
Miller’s awesome skill as a writer is patently obvious; running for the best part of three hours the play never feels stretched or padded. Every scene, line and parcel of dialogue is integral to the narrative. The characters are multifaceted with layers peeling away as the story develops. It’s possible to love, hate, pity and admire Willy as contradictions in his personality race to the surface. Linda is the stoical, unsung patriarch; constantly mending the torn relationship between her husband and sons. Biff and Happy are still searching for a direction in life; and refuse to admit how much they need their father’s approval. The characters are superbly drawn and utterly compelling. It becomes a masterclass for any budding writer.
A magnificent cast was led by the brilliant Wendell Pierce, who delivered a towering performance as the tortured and tormented Willy. I could eulogise about a play with such outstanding production values; but feel deflated that so few people will get to see this show. Maybe it’s true what they say – leave them wanting more?
Author: Arthur Miller
Directors: Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell
Producer: The Young Vic
Box Office: 08544 871 7623
Booking Until: 4 January 2020