Wendell Pierce. Death of a Salesman (c) Brinkhoff Mogenburg
Feted as one the of 20th Century’s greatest plays, seventy years after its inception, Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell have seemingly rewritten history. Taking the bold decision to recast with an African-American family has rejuvenated the piece and brought to the fore an entire new shelf of questions and thoughts. Nowhere in the script does it specifically state the heritage of the Loman family. Perhaps politics dictates they would be white. Whatever the reason, I have to continually remind myself that previous productions were not African-American, so persuasive and accurate is the portrayal. This quartet is a real powerhouse of talent that draw empathy from the audience whilst also making you feel sad, moved and at times uncomfortable.
Three hours is a rather long for a production (I am out of practice with serious drama, musicals and pantos being a staple in the Sardines’ house at the moment!) but I was literally on the edge of my seat throughout. From the first lilting notes to the last, the cast takes you on such a journey that the whole audience leaves slightly bewildered, feeing like they were the ones run over. The Loman casting is sublime. Wendell Pierce evokes a whole gamut of emotions as he stumbles from one moment to the next, his desperation and delusions dragging him evermore downwards. Pierce has such an onstage presence, he draws the audience in. His fond memories juxtaposed with harsh reality, the physical and mental exhaustion etched on both the character and actor’s face.
Sometimes actors known for film and television work can disappoint onstage but not here. Pierce is astounding. In effective contrast to his ever worsening fate, there is Sharon D Clarke’s unflappable Linda – rock of the family. Committed wholly to her boys and the belief that life will be better one day, Clarke’s portrayal is both emphatic and personable. You never feel sorry for her, even when the depth of Willy’s deceit emerges and are left sensing the same confusion by the end. Martins Imhangbe and Arinzé Kene complete the family, again affable despite their faults. Two diverse siblings both struggling with their own demons, both actors portray the brothers with powerful sensitivity and an air of desperation.
Anna Fleischle’s angular set perfectly frames the action and subtle moving levels enables the audience to move around the Loman’s house seamlessly. Swathed in dark, gloomy light; only Willy’s interactions with dead big brother Ben and the various nefarious ladies bring brightness and colour to the proceedings. I always believe a set is a visual extra with the actors being the real showcase. The simple furniture used is fitting for the Lomans' lifestyle but also means you are not detracted from the onstage action. Aideen Malone’s lighting design adds to the sombre, oppressive mood too.
We are in an age where mental health and wellbeing is being championed voraciously by schools and colleges right up the royal family. Whilst many people are mooting the themes of alienation and discrimination, for me the production highlights the transient nature of the play and how seventy years later we are still battling the same ideals society impinges on us. I do not go to the theatre expecting to have my values or beliefs changed, but there is something nascent in this production in which you will fail not to be moved or changed in some way. Politically we are meant to have come so far from when slavery was abolished in 1863 but actually we seem to be caught in a cycle. Miller’s tired and jaded salesman is now just any number of wage slaves struggling to fulfil their dreams, no matter what their heritage.
Arinze Kene, Sharon D. Clarke and Martins Imhangbe. Death of a Salesman (c) Brinkhoff Mogenburg