Monthly Archives: May 2019

The Glass Menagerie – Arcola Theatre

The Glass Menagerie, Arcola Theatre

“The tyranny of women” is at the centre of Tennessee Williams first and most autobiographical play. Every time audiences see this work about family, memory and the cost of self-determination, new layers are revealed. Now, in a co-production with the Watford Palace, the Arcola Theatre has redefined Williams’s work for the twenty-first century by shifting the action to an African American household in the heart of St Louis. If this concept sounds familiar its because the Young Vic has successfully applied the same treatment to Arthur Miller in Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s production of Death of a Salesman which opened to rave reviews. The Arcola’s version of The Glass Menagerie is sure to do the same.

A recent, and very classy, revival directed by John Tiffany played at the Duke of York’s a couple of years ago, but Femi Elufowoju jr’s new production uses the intimacy of the Arcola to set Williams’s seminal drama in an entirely new context without changing a word. Like Elliot and Cromwell’s Death of a Salesman, transposing the characters to a different type of family, entirely redraws the context in which they live. The poverty of the Wingfields, the deluded nature of their dreams and Amanda’s almost manic desperation for her daughter to find a suitable husband are further tinged with impossibility when the first tentative moves towards racial and gender equality were still decades away.

The context of Williams very domestic play is significant and while the action barely leaves the Wingfield home except to a small terrace on the fire escape, the external world of 1930s America keeps bursting in. Within the action of the play we see a continual battle between memories, dreams and reality in which each of the characters tries to come to terms with the limitations of their current lives. In one sense they all seek the ideals of the American Dream, hoping for success, happiness and family contentment that society urges them to attain, yet the truth of life in St Louis in 1937 is far uglier – Tom works in a relatively junior position in the local warehouse, while his shy and emotionally broken sister Laura has only secretarial work or marriage before her.

The great tragedy of The Glass Menagerie is how hard and fruitlessly these characters struggle to shake off the ties of the past, their abandonment by the father and husband that matriarch Amanda still idolises and her insistence on living with the customs and manners of twenty years before. Just as past and future, dreams and reality pull against one another, so too do the masculine and feminine energies of the play; in Williams famous line it is Amanda’s emotional tyranny over her children that shapes the drama, driving Tom’s need to escape her suffocation with nights at the movies, drunkenness and a flirtation with the Merchant Navy, which acts in perfect balance with the soft, quiet delicacy of Laura’s unassuming gentleness.

What is clear from Elufowoju jr’s production is the overall fragility of the world in which these characters exist; one wrong move and jobs can be lost leaving a family destitute, but they must also tread on emotional eggshells around one another, afraid to speak their minds and give voice to their true aspirations. Amanda’s rather nervy state of mind forces her children to hide truths about their lives and while she can be fearsome, nagging or shouting them into submission, this production makes clear that these behaviours come from a place of fear, one which is amplified for an African American family trying to retain respectability in a town that would never notice if they fall.

Rebecca Brower’s set does wonders with the tiny Arcola space, using the main stage as the Wingfield sitting and dining rooms that attempts refinement, while adding fire-escape staircases to utilise the permanent balcony which doubles as the vital terrace where Tom escapes to look at the moon and listen to life-giving music that emanates from the Palace dancehall across the road. Brower neatly implies the close tenement living with washing lines and other people’s windows visible on the rear wall, while the main room is a small space in which the family also sleep on rolled-out mattresses placed on the floor. The set carefully facilitates the physically confines of the Wingfield home and the emotional combustion that erupts between its three residents.

What Elufowoju jr does so well is to develop and manage the growing intensity as the action unfolds. Williams sets this up as a memory play with Tom as the conscious narrator as well as one of the lead characters. The creation of atmosphere is strongly conveyed, as Michael Abubakar’s Tom directly addresses the audience, warmly drawing us into the narrative. Arnim Friess’s lighting design creates the feel of sultry summer nights out on the fire escape, while inside the electrically lit living area burns bright until the pivotal power-cut. There is a feel of desperation and hope of a better future that Elufowoju jr sets up and knocks down as the action unfolds, using Yvonne Gilbert’s selection of nostalgic jazz music to underline both the yearning for freedom as snatches of tunes pervade the night air but also to represent the weight of the past that shackles the characters to their less gilded fate.

Lesley Ewen’s Amanda Wingfield is a complex ball of anger and frustration with her children, while reliant on the appearance of a girlish supplication that is far from a real reflection of her personality. As she describes her heyday and the arrival of numerous “gentleman callers” Ewen flirts and wheedles, imprisoned in the happy memory of her ultimate self. She falls back on those characteristics when Jim comes for dinner in Act Two, fanning herself elaborately, giggling and trying to convey a picture of sophistication and poise where only desperation remains. But beneath the all-too cracked façade, Ewen’s Amanda is a tigress, dominating her beleaguered family and unleashing furious tirades that thunder through their tiny home.

She is a frustrating character, difficult to like, full of self-delusion about her beauty and her worth, whose personality is designed to grate. Yet, Ewen unveils the psychological state that has created the monster in front of us, and in doing so renders her a little more sympathetic. Amanda may bare her teeth – a gesture Ewen introduces to reveal both determination and a lifetime of painful disappointment – but she is fragile, abandoned by the husband she managed to catch and what small gift she once possessed (or thought she did) for controlling the world.

Abubakar’s Tom is our way into the story, a frustrated hard worker forced into the man of the house role through circumstances beyond his control. As our narrator, Abubakar’s warm and inviting tone immediately welcomes the audience but also does much to create the tone of the piece, those atmospheric interjections setting the pace and feel of 1930s St Louis as he takes control of the audience’s imagination to set the scene.

Within the story, Tom’s relationship with his family is layered and complex with Abubakar finding a credible duality in his dissatisfied love for his mother and sister, accepting his duty to provide for them while dreaming of a more fulfilling future. The furious encounters with Ewen’s Amanda are particularly well performed as permanent irritation suddenly erupts when the stifling experience of the Wingfield home becomes too much for them. Of all the characters Tom looks most to the future and his need to escape, to change his life, which Abubakar explores so subtly, takes Tom to the bars and cinemas of St Louis, and ultimately to a more callous place with only self-interest and regret.

Naima Swaleh as Laura is certainly as fragile and exposed as her beloved glass ornaments, and despite an early moment of rebellion in which Laura lies about the business course she attends, Swaleh suggests an ephemeral presence, as though the character is made almost transparent by the Amanda’s dominance and Tom’s distraction. Occasionally a little mannered – although arguably the role lends itself to such an interpretation – Swaleh is at her best in the final encounter with Jim, the intensity and pathos of which wins incredible sympathy for a girl with no prospects and only further to fall.

Jim’s arrival is a turning point in the play and finally dispels the illusions of the Wingfield family setting them all on a new path. In Charlie Maher’s performance this takes on extra layers as Jim, a white Irish-American, suddenly lends fresh perspective to Williams’s words. Amanda visible falters as he appears in the dining room and despite attempts to resurrect her plan the impossibility of a relationship with Laura in this time and place is clear.

But the contrast between Jim and the Wingfield’s experience is further elucidated in Maher’s performance. Jim – like Biff in Death of a Salesman – is a former High School hero whose subsequent life has never measured up, yet his first conversation with Tom is full of arrogance, bravado even salesmanship. When he accidentally leaves devastation in his wake, the audience knows that the white boy with every privilege and opportunity will also be fine, whereas the Wingfields who struggled for every ounce of respectability ultimately have no rights or history to support them – despite Amanda’s obsession with the past, it cannot save their future.

Elufowoju jr’s production is fascinating with the tense and vibrant second half in particular proving both gripping and illuminating. With a couple more performances before Wednesday’s official press night, there’s really little to do except plug deeper into the family connections in the first few scenes. Williams does a lot of the work for you in The Glass Menagerie creating a combustible environment and unhappy but somewhat compassionate characters about to hit the point of no return, but Elufowoju jr’s has reframed the play entirely, showing us that for the African American Wingfields clinging to what society they can the tyranny of one woman is disastrous.

The Glass Menagerie is at the Arcola Theatre until 13 July with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Our Town – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Our Town - Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

For the last few months, London has been obsessed with the classic American drama and in an attempt to diversify, producers are taking risks on a greater variety of plays, risks that are paying off. While Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesman are frequently revived the fresh vision of the Old and Young Vic respectively have reorientated our perspective on these famous pieces, while lesser-known work including The Price and The American Clock also made recent appearances in the West End. The Tennessee Williams back-catalogue has been equally well-plundered with a very nice revival of Orpheus Descending arriving at the Menier Chocolate Factory last week, a new West End version of Night of the Iguana in June, an evening of one act dramas at the King’s Head in July and next week a new version of The Glass Menagerie set in an African-American household.

Of course Williams and Miller’s fame and reputation will always sell tickets, even for their less illustrious work, but other writers can be a harder sell, so it’s interesting that the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has chosen to revive Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town which, despite its Pullitzer Prize, is not so well known in the UK. Wilder is one of the most prolific American writers you’ve probably never heard of, penning numerous plays and novels as well as a single film between 1926 and 1973, earning him a total of three Pullitzers – two for playwriting and one for a 1927 novel.

It’s certainly an interesting choice for the Open Air Theatre in what promises to be a season of interesting choices, not least Jamie’s Lloyd’s take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita in August. Our Town is a both a strange and almost poetic experience, described as a meta-theatrical work, it uses the conventions of theatre to examine everyday life in small-town America while simultaneously commenting on the limited nature and understanding of human existence. Guided by the “Stage Manager” who directly addresses the audience, dispassionately narrating both the lives of the characters in the years between 1901 and 1913, and the geographical context of the fictional town that pointedly limits their entire existence.

Directed by Ellen McDougall, this new production takes a little while to get used to, particularly as Wilder’s style is to tell not show. The Stage Manager character is a calm and authoritative guide, but deliberately has no distinct personality of her own, she’s not trying to sell the brilliance of the town or in any way criticise the community Our Town reveals, but like the Chorus in Henry V, her purpose is to set the scene, asking the audience to imagine the layout of the town and passing of the years as she guides us through the three thematic Acts – Daily Life, Love and Marriage, Death and Eternity.

Although much later than Wilder, the style is reminiscent of several films in the late 1940s and early 1950s that used voice-over narration to control the story, largely in film noir but occasionally in comedies as well. Equally, Lars von Trier’s Dogville comes to mind – which also used a narrator – in which the activities of a town are inferred rather than shown, and McDougall’s production is a similarly and purposefully alienating experience. As with these examples, Wilder doesn’t want the audience to become too embroiled in the minutia of living, the characters are deliberately thin and cipher-like, and the narrator is a device employed to keep us on the outside of the play. Instead, the cumulative and overall effect of Wilder’s play is to make the audience question the value of living quietly “two-by-two” as everyone else does and what more there could be.

The strength of the Open Air Theatre’s production is in its slow-build effect, that over the course of 2 hours reaches a meaningful conclusion. The final Act is by far the best, set several years after the previous events as the dead reflect on their former existence and the freedom that comes from no longer being alive. A new member unexpectedly joins their ranks who clings to the idea of their old life, desperate to go back and relive one day, despite advice to the contrary. For the first time, at this specific moment, McDougall and designer Rosie Elnile introduce a small detailed room, a confined space that quickly feels more like a trap than the happy memory the character hoped for.

Wilder deliberately conjures almost everything the audience needs to know within the text, so throughout the play very little staging is required. Elnile has filled the stage at the Open Air Theatre with raked seating, a curious decision that distracts from anything else and makes it far harder for the audience to imagine the store fronts, houses and hills that the Stage Manager asks us to picture. Its purpose, assumedly, is twofold, to reflect our own lives back at us, a mirror of similar flip-up seats to the ones we’ve paid to sit in, and possibly also to imply the 2000 other residents of Grover’s Corner referenced in the story.

Throughout the play, characters sit in different seats at various levels of the seating rig, make use of two small balconies to suggest windows and the aisles as though coming down to breakfast. It’s all been clearly choreographed by McDougall to spread the non-speaking actors around the scaffold-like construction to physically separate them and us from the action. But it doesn’t leave much room for the imagination to fill in the gaps and, as you’re trying to adjust to Wilder’s style in the 90-minute first half that combines Acts I and II, it dwarfs the scenes on the stage in front, so rather than facilitate the play the design is more often at odds with it.

Other approaches are less intrusive, and the performers wear modern clothes in a variety of bright colours apart from the narrator in black. At the start the actors line-up and the Stage Manager introduces them by their real name stating which character they will perform – this and the lack of period setting support Wilder’s desire not to immerse the audience in the story, actively preventing the theatrical illusion from taking hold from the start to ensure that we see ourselves  and the broader themes about life and community reflected on the stage.

As the Stage Manager Laura Rogers is a friendly but authoritative narrator. Taking Wilder’s cue, Rogers makes no obvious comment on the town and its people, the lines are delivered without sentiment or obvious allegiance to the area or any people as though the Stage Manager is a detached observer factually describing what she sees. Rogers engages well with the audience – the only character to do so directly – and is our tour guide around the world of the play, stopping scenes, creating new locations and occasionally playing some of the supernumeraries including the doddery owner of the soda shop.

We are not particularly expected to invest in the life of the townsfolk which is a tricky position for the rest of the cast. Their purpose is to represent the rolling nature of life, of births, marriages and deaths, of getting-up to make the family breakfast everyday for forty year while waiting for the paperboy. Nonetheless, they must imply the reality of lives they represent and that there are real people living like this all the time who, as Wilder suggests, are so drawn into the routines and expectations of society that they are perhaps unable to see life in perspective and, separately, its value.

Nominally, the audience follows two families, the Gibbs and the Webbs; Karl Collins and Pandora Colin as Dr and Mrs Gibb are pillars of the town and good friends with neighbours Thusitha Jayasundera and Tom Edden as Mrs and Editor Webb, the owner of the local newspaper. Together they are the picture of ordinary American society in the early twentieth century, the men work in respectable jobs, the women cook and raise the children, normal, unremarkable, decent families ordered by an externally-imposed structure to their day, none of them thinking beyond the preparations for dinner or disapproving local gossip about the drunken choir master (an amusing Peter Hobday).

We follow their children George Gibb played by Arthur Hughes and Francesca Henry as Emily Webb who share homework tips as teenagers before eventually marrying. Both convey the innocent enthusiasm of the school child morphing into shy lovers-to-be. Hughes has a particularly good scene with Edden as a future son-in law asks advice about marriage from Mr Webb on his wedding day, working through the doubts. Henry’s Emily comes into her own in Act III as the story takes her character in a different direction which allows her greater time to reflect on her life in which Henry suggests well both the enthusiasm for it and the pain it causes.

The staging choices in Our Town do impede the action to a degree, making it harder for the audience to imagine the streets and countryside that the Stage Manager describes to us, and given the backdrop of Regent’s Park it seems a shame to cover it up. All the actors have microphones but with so large a seating rig it’s not always instantly obvious who is speaking as the sound comes from the side speakers, and some of the general town scenes become lost. Over time, and especially by Act III, Our Town does start to work its magic and the audience sees Grover’s Corner as a place people live all their lives, where even the hooting railroad becomes nothing more than a symbol of freedom that no one ever uses.

With two more previews to go, Our Town has a little work to do to find a clearer rhythm for Acts I and II, working within the confines of the slightly restrictive staging they have chosen. It was a cold May evening and a number of people departed at the interval, but this production of Our Town is still a worthwhile and interesting experience. Wilder’s writing feels as fresh and innovative as it must have done in the 1930s and taking an early season risk on a less conventional play ultimately pays off. Most importantly, this new desire to look beyond the well-known classics is creating opportunities to rethink our relationship with the theatre past and, through new approaches to diversity and inclusion, reimagine them for the future.

Our Town is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 8 June with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Orpheus Descending – Menier Chocolate Factory

Orpheus Descending - Theatre Clywd

The rediscovery and restaging of the lesser known works of major playwrights has been something of a trend in London theatres recently. Duncan MacMillan and Ian Rickson’s critically acclaimed production breathed new life into Ibsen’s Rosmersholm with its modernist female-lead and political storyline that found new resonances, making a reasonable case for the play’s inclusion amongst Ibsen’s finest writing. Last year Rebecca Frecknall and Patsy Ferran did the same for Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, but despite the many good things about Tamara Harvey’s new production of Orpheus Descending it’s never going to be considered a neglected masterpiece.

Yet even a middling Tennessee Williams play is better than most, and this one still has plenty to say about sacrifice and suffocation in small-town America. Written in 1957, this is mid-period Williams, it comes after greats such as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and immediately followed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but before Sweet Bird of Youth and Night of the Iguana a revival of which opens at the Noel Coward in June. Orpheus Descending didn’t last long on its debut and the play has a number of structural problems which even Harvey’s fine production cannot entirely overcome.

With the entirety of the play set in the Torrance store, much of the action happens off-stage either in other locations or between scenes, so what the audience hears is either character memories or town gossip which can make the action feel a little static or, in places, too fast moving. What set Williams’s greatest works apart is the family setting in which long-buried tensions and frustrations are triggered and released by the catalytic action of the play, examined through long character-driven exchanges. Additional context has happened before and around the action, but Williams ensures the storm gathers and breaks in front of us.

Orpheus Descending has elements of that but with the key focus on the disconcerting arrival of a handsome stranger causing chaos in the town, Williams is only partially successful. His protagonist here Valentine Xavier, known as Val, is the agent of change despite his intention to live a cleaner life now he’s 30. His arrival is a chance for the townsfolk to exorcise a past act – the burning of the wine garden and orchard which resulted in the death of Lady’s father – and to confront the truth about its consequences many years later. Val may exacerbate this knowledge, but he has no connection to it which reduces some of the play’s tension.

Val and Lady (daughter of the deceased owner of the wine garden, derogatorily referred to as “The Wop” throughout) have most of the conversation but with less than four months acquaintance by the end of the play there are no damaging secrets or withheld frustrations between them that energise Williams’s better works. Val’s travelling loner status and wild past is interesting, but he lacks the raw jealous control of Stanley Kowalski or the stunted boyhood bitterness of Brick Pollitt that reverberates around the family unit caught helplessly in their self-destructive force. Instead, Williams has to place these legacy resentments and secrets in the hands of characters we hardly get to see, lessening their impact even in the play’s dramatic and revelatory final scene.

But Orpheus Descending is by no means a bad play, and Harvey’s production which opened at Theatre Clwyd in April, makes the best of it with a well-paced ¾ round production that focuses on Williams’s engaging character studies and the impressionistic sketch of a small town full of fears and repressed emotion. Jonathan Fensom takes a simple approach to setting, and rather than creating a general store full of stock and a shop counter instead offers a scattering of fold-up chairs and a few tables to give the look of a café or outside picnic area. Serving as the shop doorway, the rear wall is dominated by a large wooden archway with slightly singed boards – quietly referencing the fire at the Moon Lake wine garden that took Lady’s father’s life. This obscures the “Confectionary” that Lady is adding to the building, and the town beyond where so much of the drama takes place away from the audience’s view.

One of Harvey’s most intriguing inventions is to use the character of Uncle Pleasant as a kind of Chorus, echoing the Greek legend on which the story is based. An almost mute character in Williams’s original, a local “Conjure Man” who frightens some of the more highly-strung ladies but used to imply freedom from the oppressive rules of this exclusionist and racist town that resists all outsiders, Val included. Harvey has given Valentine Hanson’s Uncle Pleasant carefully selected passages from the stage directions to read at various points through the play, almost as though the character is “conjuring” the store and its people as a moral warning to the viewer. It’s an interesting and welcome technique that adds additional layers to the production, although perhaps is used too sparingly to create a sense of inevitability to the same extent as the narrated structure of Greek legends do.

The repression of wildness and its consequences is a key theme, one which Williams handles with particular skill. The notion of the store is juxtaposed as a metaphor for commercial exchange repeatedly referenced in the play, and something which Harvey’s version draws attention to, the idea of people being bought and sold in marriage and other forms of oppressive relationship. Lady is central to this and right at the start of the play townswoman Beulah (Catrin Aaron) explains to the audience that store owner Jabe “bought her, when she was a girl of eighteen! He bought her and bought her cheap.” Later in the play, during a slightly rushed and unlikely conversation with David Cutrere who left her to marry a richer woman Lady tells him “You sold yourself. I sold myself. You was bought. I was bought.”  Even Val says “I’m telling you, lady, there’s people bought and sold in this world like carcasses of hogs in butcher shops!”

This is designed to show us the psychological state of many of the characters, limited by the confines of their location and broken down by lives they never wanted. While women like Beulah and Dolly (Laura Jane Matthewson) are happier with their lot, the three more central characters – Val, Lady and Carol Cutrere – are caged animals like many a Williams character, unable to tame their natural wildness however many years they live in confinement. Carol is perhaps the most tragic of these with Jemima Roper at first suggesting a woman much more at ease with who and what she us, unashamed and almost proud of the stares and the gossip her appearance and behaviour elicits. Carol is the only character to be friendly to Uncle Pleasant, while openly and lustfully pursuing Val throughout the play.

Yet, Roper allows us to see the vulnerability and essential fragility in Carol as the action unfolds, explaining that her over-made-up appearance is a mask of expectation, a self-proclaimed “exhibitionist” oppressed by the family name and acting out for effect. But Roper shows us that Carol’s bravado, the drink, the partying, the men on Cyprus Hill are manifestations of her broken spirit, the obsession with Val and her increasing desperation has a real tragedy in Roper’s performance that underscores Williams’s core theme about the artificial restrictions places on people not build for ordinary society.

Hattie Morahan’s Lady is in a slightly different kind of cage, one she built herself by aligning with the much older Jabe. At the start of the play her strength and determination are emphasised, there’s a no-nonsense feel to her that seems practical and different to the other women in the town, unaffected by Val’s handsome face. Lady sits on the boundary of insider and outsider status, still seen as the daughter of someone who didn’t belong but through sheer determination forced herself into the town’s structure through marriage and in maintaining the focal-point store.

Yet, as the play unfolds, Morahan allows this resignation to slowly unpeel, revealing a woman more deeply scarred by the death of her father and the former relationship that would have offered a happier life. The early conversations with Val are played as two equals, employer and employee without an underlying sexual tension which suggests Lady’s emotional centre is more tightly controlled, that she’s not looking for an escape route. Morahan instead implies that the passion between them is more spontaneous, their eventual chemistry growing out of being listened to and respected for the first time in years, which unleashes a torrent (linking to her married surname) of emotion and a trembling hope that makes the finale both poignant and powerful. It’s an approach that yields rewards in Morahan’s interesting and meaningful interpretation of a woman rediscovering her spirit.

Seth Numrich is an experienced Williams leading man, having previously starred alongside Kim Cattrall in The Old Vic’s Sweet Bird of Youth, and his Val finds himself at a crucial decision point in his life. Having just turned 30, he’s trying to turn his back on his former fast-paced lifestyle and unlike Carol struggles less with the desire to find something more wholesome. Numrich presents a calm figure, detached from those around him seeking a kind of peace. His chemistry with Lady develops slowly, as friendship becomes something else. It may not be a grand burning passion, but the steadier coming together of two damaged souls.

But as the play unfolds his old life starts to call him back, releasing he cannot so easily switch-off the old desires and struggling to transition to the better, more stable man he wants to be. Numrich’s finest moment is later in the play at a crucial point of revelation, one which Val embraces with genuine delight, finally offered the chance, albeit momentarily, to be all the things he hoped for, a scene that Numrich suggests is crucial to the psychology of Val, a traveller looking for direction.

Following Harvey’s recent West End success with Home, I’m Darling, this production of Orpheus Descending similarly examines the one-size-fits-all role women have been expected to play in society and how damaging that can be. The chilly auditorium may reflect Lady’s frequent complaints about the coldness in the store after dark – the Menier perhaps making it a little too immersive – but this well-performed and considered production is a consistently interesting and valuable experience. It’s not Williams’s best work by any means but the complexity of his character portraits and its comment on “them and us” attitudes still hold considerable meaning for modern audiences.

Orpheus Descending is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 6 July with tickets from £40. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Death of a Salesman – Young Vic

Death of a Salesman - Young Vic

With high-quality Arthur Miller revivals across the West End this Spring, the arrival of his much-revived 1949 tale of travelling salesman Willy Loman and his family at the Young Vic has elicited much expectation, not least because celebrated director Marianne Elliott is at the helm. Good direction can often go unnoticed, when the play flows seamlessly or builds the requisite tension and emotional investment for an audience the writer is often credited, but good direction gets to the heart of the play, amplifying and clarifying its themes and resonances. And then there are the directors you do notice, the ones who see beyond the text and its history of performance to entirely change our perspective on the work, these are the visionaries.

We are lucky enough to have a handful of truly visionary directors working regularly in the West End today, all of whom have produced shows in the last few months. Love or loathe their work – and the burden of their approach is to be so divisive – it has a distinctive and recognisable style of its own and is unlike anything else you will see. Ivo van Hove is one such director, liberating the classics like Hedda Gabler and A View from the Bridge from their set-based imprisonment while introducing cinematic techniques into his stage translations of Network and All About Eve. Jamie Lloyd has transformed our perspective on Harold Pinter over many years, not least in the ground-breaking Pinter at the Pinter season and a moving new version of Betrayal, while his take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita this summer will be something to see.

Female directors too are carving a path to visionary status, with Rebecca Frecknall, though early in her career, finding her own style in the astounding Summer and Smoke, followed by a solid revival of Three Sisters. But it is Elliott who has surprised us again and again, not just changing the way theatre is made in her management of technique and production scale, but also upending our perspective of a well-known work with one radical, but fairly canny, decision. When Elliott approached Stephen Sondheim for permission to change the gender of the protagonist in Company the result was inspirational, leading to a long West End run and a new life for a show that felt as though it had always been written that way.

Now, working with Miranda Cromwell, her approach to Death of a Salesman is doing the same, shifting Miller’s perspective on a working family struggling to find their place while reaching for the fabled American Dream. In Elliott and Cromwell’s new version which opens to the press on Thursday, the action takes place in the home of an African American family for the first time, which in some respects makes no difference to the text – suggesting the universality of Miller’s themes and their easy transposition to all kinds of family life – but simultaneously offers a new angle to view this familiar story that, with little change, brings new and meaningful tones to the dialogue.

Miller’s play, on one level, is about ageing and the shift of responsibility and power from parent to child played out within the family, as well as in the commerce-based subplot in which the titular salesman Willy’s ability to perform comes into question. But, the continued infantilization of his two sons, Biff and Happy, means neither is ready to assume responsibility for the household despite being well into their 30s. The intricate balance of fears, resentments and false illusions that connect the Lomans is particularly well created in this production as these men are forced to confront who they really are.

All of the Lomans are fixated on a period 15-years previously when popular eldest son Biff was captain of the school football team and expected to go to College – strongly implied here that he would have been the first member of the family to do so. Willy too was a successful salesman, well-known and welcomed amongst his clients in a time of great prosperity for the family. A flunked maths test and an unknown breach sends the entire family in a different direction; Death of a Salesman is the story of the slow and painful death of these dreams and, as ever with Miller, the acceptance of the truth that remains.

Elliott and Cromwell’s production is full of innovation and while it’s not quite coming together yet, it has all of the building blocks in place to reach where it needs to be in a few performance’s time. With the RSC’s recent production still present in the mind, designer Anna Fleischle eschews the two-story home we’ve seen so many times before and instead opts for a granite tomb-like single floor, with raised platforms to denote different rooms. A barely visible rear staircase shrouded in darkness is used subtly by the characters to occasionally suggest action on the mainstage is now taking place on a different storey. Most visually arresting however are the items of furniture, lighting and windows suspended above the stage and lowered into place to create different rooms.

It’s an impressionistic approach that yields considerable insight into the themes of the play, the characters’ attachment to material possessions as indicators of success, and most especially to the physical home that contains their family history, which they have spent decades slowly paying-off. With almost continuous action and few obvious scene breaks, what Fleischle suggests with this flowing scenery is the tantalising yet illusory nature of these symbols of achievement (both family and objects), that as easily as they lower into place they are removed, and it is matriarch Linda Loman who clearly draws on this point in the play’s pointed conclusion.

The sparring use of music is one of the most notable aspects of this new production which under the musical directorship of Femi Temowo uses the African-American setting to bring additional layers of tragedy by aligning it with the pain and storytelling of mid-century jazz, blues and, at times, even gospel. It opens with cast members singing a sober melody, occasionally lines are sung softly for emphasis while the conversation continues above it, and it ends with an equally sorrowful lament that feels poignant and exciting as a technique. The emotive quality of jazz and blues in particular seems to suit the action without being intrusive while reinforcing the call away from New York to the south and a different kind of living which is one of Miller’s main points of exploration.

Perhaps more than any production of recent times, this version of Death of a Salesman with its hard city surface and not a hint of green, draws out the character’s yearning for the pastoral world and the cleaner, more physical life it offers. This is particularly true for Biff who speaks with passion for his work on a cattle farm and the satisfaction of being within the rhythms of nature and the earth. But other characters also muse on the wonders of life beyond Brooklyn as Willy recalls happy times travelling across New England admiring the countryside which speaks directly to his soul in Wendell Pierce’s performance, and despite his wife’s insistence and the exhaustion that affects his mind, he is reluctant to return to New York for good.

The artificiality of the American Dream and the life it creates for people cooped-up in cities, buying status-based conveniences they don’t really need has major consequences for Willy Loman. Working with Pierce, Elliott and Cromwell create a strange dreamlike quality to Willy’s memories that frequently intrude on the present day. His increasing bewilderment marks a crisis point in the lives of the Loman family, one in which the provider is no longer capable, a reality from which the family seek to protect him and themselves. This schism is given physical form using a series of flashbulbs to cut between fragments of memory, interspersed with slow-motion sports posing and movement as he remembers his son’s heroism and converses in his mind with his own brother Ben about making money. The hyper-real nature of these sections though deliberately stylised are a little awkward, veering into cheesy at times, and although Miller’s message is clear, there is work to do here to increase the efficacy of the scenes.

The production is on much firmer ground with its compelling real-world conversations, and in the sympathetic portrayal of Willy’s breakdown. There is no King Lear-style grand dementia but smaller shifts in personality and lucidity that, as the story unfolds, claim more of Willy’s mind. Pierce gives a meaningful and compassionate performance as a man who has no idea what is happening to him but implies the frustration others experience in caring for his present condition as well as the intimidating man he once was. The rupture in his family began long before, so Pierce adeptly manages this complex bundle of character traits from different eras of his life very well, but as aspects of the fiery antagonist that occasionally reappears with Biff becomes clouded with mutterings about the professional respect he once enjoyed and a desire to escape it all, Pierce’s performance becomes increasingly saddening.

As with previous productions, Biff is probably the most interesting member of the Loman family, and Arinzé Kene captures the duality at the heart of the character. In the early scenes as he reconnects with his brother, the youthful enthusiasm for the rustic work he adores lights him up, but as events play out the pull of his sports-star past and the burden of his parents’ expectations weigh heavy. The intensity Kene brings to the exchanges with his family are excellent, but full of rage as the self-appointed bearer of truth, Kene’s Biff is riven with his own sense of failure, at 34 still hiding from the realities of adulthood, the catalyst for change in his family as he tries to throw off the past in the quest to discovery who he’s meant to be.

Martins Imhangbe as the womanising Happy and Sharon D. Clarke as Linda complete the family unit, with the ever-reliable Clarke bringing texture to the role of devoted wife. Full of pity for her husband and the cruel hand life has dealt him, she’s determined to defend him to the end, even if it means losing her sons – and Clarke gets to use her beautiful soulful voice which helps to flesh-out a small role, suggesting her stoicism while carving out her own motivation by linking to her faith.

Despite being set in what seems to be the 1950s, the Second World War and the implication that both sons may have fought doesn’t frame the Young Vic’s production with the same kind of inevitable intensity that drives All My Sons down the road at the Old Vic, and at 3 hours and 15 minutes it is overlong. Yet, with a focus on “not fitting in” or belonging to this urban world of workers and nepotism, Miller’s play is slightly re-orientated to subtly expose the very different challenges and barriers for African-American families in this period. At this early stage the many well-crafted elements haven’t fully woven satisfactorily together but even if they don’t, with visionary director Marianne Elliott leading the way with such insight, it’s more than enough that this eye-opening production exists at all.

Death of a Salesman is at the Young Vic until 13 July with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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