Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic: ‘a masterful but painful production’
Watching Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic, I’m distinctly reminded of M. C. Escher’s print ‘Relativity’. Made of jutting sections of harsh grey stone, Anna Fleischle’s set captures not only the cold desolation of a man whose life has amounted to little but also the mental confusion Willy Loman is going through. Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s direction ensures Willy Loman is always dangerously teetering on a point of mental collapse: memories violently force themselves on this suffering man’s psyche whilst his family are left mourning the man he once was. Simply put, this is a masterful but painful production.
Willy Loman has lived as a travelling salesman. His mantra has been to live a life wherein he is well liked, from which will come success and money. Now aged sixty and living solely on commission, the world Willy once knew is changing. Social relationships have already changed: fathers have been replaced by sons in business, leading to moral codes being replaced by a harsh commercialism. ‘A man is not a piece of fruit’ Willy exclaims at one point, his life now prompting a sour, not sweet, taste in his mouth.
Arthur Miller’s play on the page often presents scenes of the past inter-cut within the narrative of the aged Loman trying to make it in the world. Elliott and Cromwell have changed this so audiences are presented now with mental snapshots that never make it quite clear how Willy is seeing them: are these hallucinations or memories? Aideen Malone’s lighting and Carolyn Downing’s sound ensure the distinction is never clear. Finally Femi Temowo’s music also adds a beating pulse to a man who can no longer hear the music.
Wendell Pierce offers Willy as a tired man beaten down by the world. The casting of the show by Charlotte Sutton of an all-black family changes Willy’s emphasis on his troubled past and desire not to be a servant to anyone else in a way that emphasises both his personal despair and hope for a better life for his sons. Martins Imhangbe and Arinzé Kene as Happy and Biff Loman respectively further this damaged family as two sons who see their father falling apart with nothing to prevent his eventual demise. Attempting to hold the family together is Sharon D. Clarke as Linda Loman, whose resistance at watching her world slowly tear apart slowly becomes the most tragic aspect of the production brimming with pathos.
Marianne Elliott seems to have struck gold again with Death of a Salesman, but it’s no fluke: her direction here offers a fresh take on a well-known tale of the fall of the common man. To watch Pierce’s Willy Loman fall apart is difficult, but to watch the events leading up to his demise is devastating.
Death of a Salesman is at the Young Vic until the 13th July, 2019.
Photograph: Brinkhoff Mogenburg.