Arthur Miller’s heartbreaking play is powerfully retold with softness and fragility – ★★★★
Much like its lead actor Willy Loman, after seeing Marianne Elliott and Marina Cromwell’s adaptation of Death of a Salesman, I am left feeling conflicted. While the production is sold on the basis of having two incredible lead performances (Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke), it appears to have more of an appeal to those who have read – or at least, those who are familiar with – Arthur Miller’s classic play.
It follows struggling businessman Willy (Pierce), who’s trying to manage a dysfunctional family situation, with his caring wife Linda (Clarke) negotiating with his two sons – Biff (Sope Dirisu) and Happy (Natey Jones) – to maintain the harmony. For an acclaimed script, there’s several smart sub-plots to explore – especially family dynamics – but these don’t carry the same weight in comparison to Willy’s deterioration.
With a simple but effective projection-style lighting, we see other characters apply pressure onto Willy. Sudden snapshots, alongside sizzling intensity from Pierce, soon establish a sense of urgency where everything feels on edge. Together with a minimal set design of doorframes and window frames, the audience feels like spectators peering in to a delicate situation. While such a tone is sometimes ruined by unnecessary loud outbursts from Pierce, it’s perhaps the loud, vocal disruption to the peace which means I watch on, unnerved, at the next occasion whereby the salesman would be pushed to the brink.
Often, it’s Linda left to pick up the pieces of her tragically broken husband – albeit lovingly so. Her fierce defence of Willy’s character when challenged by son Biff is passionately performed by Clarke, making her pained expressions in later scenes all the more tragic.
What’s also supposed to be tragic is Willy’s daydreams, though it was at these moments where I myself lost focus on what was unfolding. Miller’s elaborate production covers a lot over the course of three hours, and while it is certainly poignant come the end, it is rather unfortunate that one narrative and two lead performances – however powerful – are the sole successes of this latest adaptation.
Death of a Salesman is now playing at the Piccadilly Theatre until 4 January 2020.