Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman has shifted down the road and entered a new run at the Piccadilly Theatre, with a fresh tone from directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell.
Willy Loman is a travelling salesman, practically part of the furniture at his company, who he has served faithfully for three decades. He’s one mortgage payment away from finally owning his home, he has two grown up sons and an adoring wife – life seems good. But Willy is tired…very tired. In fact, his family are immensely worried about his state of mind and the effect that his job has had on him. He is haunted by the ghost of what he could – and should – have been, and this gives way to devastating consequences.
Death of a Salesman questions the legitimacy of chasing the American Dream. The Loman family share different views on what this means, but one thing that’s clear to everyone except Willy is that 30 years of loyal service and hard work have not rewarded him well. Biff is the antithesis of his father, openly declaring his hatred for the oppression that an office job promises, seeking out roles that fill his heart rather than his pockets. Happy, on the other hand, is the younger version of Willy, in love with the idea of success and already deep in the quicksand of climbing the corporate ladder – a sad image, as we see a reflection of a younger Willy. This highlights the cultural ‘Dream’ epidemic, embedded in generation after generation, repeating the same actions and not reaping the promised benefits. Changing the race of the Loman family adds a new dimension to the play, as the audience acknowledges the increased challenges that a black man would face as a salesman in the late 40’s, early 50’s.
Designer Anna Fleischle has described having a deeply personal connection to the content of the play, and this unique understanding of grief and loss has transferred into its visual design. The stage is dark and dreary, dotted with a variety of props suspended in mid-air, lowering and rising hauntingly. This moving set invites us into Willy’s mind: disjointed, ever-shifting. The flashback scenes are brighter, colourful, warmer, transforming how we see Willy’s past – which, metaphorically, seem to offer him more comfort than his present. Indeed, at times it’s difficult to distinguish between the scenes that are reality and the ones that are Willy’s memories (or embellishments of his imagination), echoing the theme of his psychological deterioration.
Wendell Pierce constructs Willy as an inherently loving and charismatic – yet infinitely flawed – man, switching instantly between the guise of household patriarch, to proud yet bumbling salesman, to adoring yet often dismissive husband. His ability to take this deeply complex, ever-changing character and craft him into someone that an audience actually likes and cares about by the end of the second half – well, it’s remarkable. His departure from the family caused a ripple of shock and stony silence throughout the theatre, as if we had all just suffered a genuine loss.
Sharon D. Clarke stuns as Linda Loman, with a chillingly beautiful singing voice and characterising an unrelenting faithfulness to Willy. She embodies the institution of hope in the Loman family, representing the importance of patience and gentleness when experiencing a loved one’s struggle with mental illness.
The play did feel a touch too long, with the first half mostly set inside the Loman house and consisting of several lengthy scenes. However, my main criticism lies with the Piccadilly Theatre. Aside from the fact that the seats were the most uncomfortable that I’ve subjected my derriere to in many years of theatre, the acoustics aren’t great, with sound struggling to carry to the back of the stalls; and well – no need to mention the ceiling thing, because the news covered that pretty well. Considering the eye-watering prices of tickets nowadays, you rightfully expect some of it to be fed back into the physicality of the theatre.
This adaptation of Death of a Salesman reaches unique heights with its fresh racial perspective on the Loman family, adding a deeper historical context to Willy’s circumstances. Miller’s play is a study on how a person’s mental health issues can bleed into the family dynamic, and how this can destabilise and devastate from the core. A sensitively performed and boldly directed adaptation that is both uncomfortable and crucial to watch, contributing a vital narrative to the West End on the importance of mental health awareness.
Reviewed by Laura Evans
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