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.