Trevor Cooper, Wendell Pierce, Sharon D Clarke. Photo: Brinkhoff-Mogenburg
When I first saw this outstanding show earlier this year at The Young Vic and then heard that it was to transfer into the West End, I didn’t think it could get any better. It has. The flashbacks are now impeccably otherworldly and Wendell Pierce’s central performance is even spikier. It’s an unforgettably sharp exploration of an unravelling mind.
Casting four black actors as the Loman family nuances the experience of African Americans trying to live out their lives in a culture which values money and sales above anything else. At the same time there is an overpowering cult of popularity – harder maybe for this family than a white equivalent - in what is probably Arthur Miller's most cutting of plays.
It was clear on press night (to my surprise – I used to teach Death of a Salesman to GCSE students) that many people in the audience were unfamiliar with the play. So here is the short version: Willie Loman (Wendell Pierce) has been a moderately successful travelling salesman whose self-worth rests entirely in his sales figures but, now mentally ill, he is no longer up to the job. He and his wife Linda (Sharon C Clarke) have two sons in their early thirties (Sope Dirisu and Natey Jones) neither of whom has achieved anything largely because they have been set the wrong sort of example by their father. Eventually it ends in tragedy when Willie finally cracks.
Pierce digs out terrific depth in Willie who is variously angry, confused, abrupt, changeable, volatile and capricious. It’s a riveting performance. So is Sharon C Clarke’s as the long suffering, worried, loving Linda. The final scene when she is alone on stage and singing softly as she weeps is almost unbearably painful.
Dirisu and Jones are both new castings with the transfer. They work well together and play off each other adeptly and are convincing when they revert to teenagers in the flashbacks. Dirisu as Biff has been a high school football star with university prospects but a dreadful discovery throws him off track. Dirisu makes all aspects of this very moving.
Among the support roles Trevor Cooper is good value as the gruff but kindly neighbour, Charley, His being white adds another dimension to Willie’s refusal to accept his help in this production. Ian Bonar is strong too as Charley’s studious son, Bernard who makes a success of his life in stark contrast to the Loman brothers.
A word of praise for Anna Fleishle’s designs. Her programme essay explains that for her this play is very personal because her own father took his own life when she was 24. Her designs – shadowy doorways and staircases, furniture which comes and goes - focus on showing us how it might seem to Willy’s disordered and disintegrating mind when things are not what they seem. Aideen Malone’s blue tinged lighting for the flashbacks is remarkably effective too.
Buy, beg, borrow or steal a ticket. This really is one you don’t want to miss.