Death of a Salesman – review

Written by Arthur Miller
Piccadilly Theatre
Review by: Ronke Lawal
Published: Tuesday, 5th November 2018, 10:36am
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How does one even begin to review a such a highly anticipated production, a production with a cast with such gravitas that one has to ensure they are not merely influenced by the fact that they are on stage? This is the West End transfer of the highly acclaimed Young Vic production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

This production is a triumph

At the centre of this play is loss – loss of a dream, loss of hopes, loss of identity and how much our dreams and hopes define our identities.  Set in the Late 40s/Early 50s, Death of a Salesman opens with Willy Loman (Wendell Pierce) returning home from a business trip where his ever-loyal wife Linda (Sharon D Clarke) is waiting for him. She informs him that his two sons, Biff (Sope Dirisu) and Happy (Natey Jones) are home and it is with this news that the story explores Willy’s brokenness and the disappointments that have lead him to this very moment. 

Willy resists change in a way that manifests through the flashbacks of the past and the tension and his ever-present rage that precipitates through every scene. He is so caught up in the denial of the broken promises of the American dream that he carries the burden and weight of disappointment with him in a way that eventually leads to his demise. The projection of Willy’s hope and ambition onto his son, Biff lead to an overwhelming sense of pressure and turmoil that affects his relationship with himself, his wife and his younger son Happy. The pressure is palpable, the themes of turmoil and self-destruction run throughout this play but there is also the overarching constant need for love. Love is central in Death of a Salesman despite the intense sadness which presents itself on stage through the incredible performances of the cast.

 I cannot recommend it enough – the intensity and lesson on a very real human experience ensure that this play will continue to stand the test of time

Something that we cannot ignore is the reimagining of the cast to reflect the American Dream through the lens of an African American family who have moved through the class ranks on the cusp of the civil rights movement. There are certain interactions which were particularly poignant such as the conversation between Howard Wagner (Matthew Seadon-Young) and Willy, in which racial power play showed up. Not to mention the need to redefine dreams in the face of failure, Biff represents this well; at a time when sports were a ticket to escape from the barriers of racism in the sense that money was equated to freedom much like the entrepreneurial and professional hopes and dreams of Happy and Willy of course were underlined by this idea of making money overcoming racism  (even though in reality it does not).

This is a review and not a dissertation so I will have to cut my comments short by stating that this production is a triumph from the stage design to the musical score. Sharon D Clarke and Wendell Pierce were exceptional along with Natey Jones and Sope Dirisu who shone on stage. I cannot recommend it enough – the intensity and lesson on a very real human experience ensure that this play will continue to stand the test of time.

NEED TO KNOW: Death of a Salesman is at the Piccadilly Theatre until 4 Jan 2020 See listing