“ATTENTION must be paid,” is a line that resonates through American theatre in the 20th century. With the latest production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which has transferred to the Piccadilly Theatre from the Young Vic, the director Marianne Elliott ensures much more than attention. She also sets aside colour-blind casting to make the Loman family a black family, which demands a fresh reading of the play.
Written in 1949, and not a word changed here, the play stands the test of time, although, clocking in at three hours, it underscores how theatre audiences are now used to shorter, tighter scripts. The pace gives the lines and action all the reverence that they need, however, and the play feels baggy only in a few places. That is mainly thanks to the mesmerising acting, which is wholly convincing in its physicality and naturalness.
Because much of the deep pathos of Salesman is in its domestic drama, the majestic figure of Sharon D. Clarke mines depths of emotional dignity as Linda Loman. Hers is the quiet and homely presence that keeps everything together, the moral conscience of the family (“Attention must be finally paid to such a person,” she implores her sons over their father); and her gorgeous, soulful voice is given the African-American spiritual “When the trumpet sounds” to bookend the play.
The showy and irascible husband, Willy, is Wendell Pierce, known to many from The Wire on TV. A great bear of a man, he roars and bounds through the night, desperate to keep his job alive and his family in line. Neither is possible, and the slow descent into his inescapable failure is as agonising as any Greek tragedy. The sons — Sope Dirisu as Biff and Natey Jones as Happy — handle with dexterity a number of gear shifts, including the flashback moments that require them to be teenage boys. One believes in his father and tries to follow him; the other doesn’t, owing to a youthful betrayal, and wants nothing better than to flee the constraints of corporate culture and capitalist city to be a ranchman in the wild open air.
The play asks questions that are still important today: about authenticity, about sacrifices and whether they are worth it, how families do and don’t work, and the goodbyes that we choose. Willy’s refusal to be seen as “dime-a-dozen” (“I’m Willy Loman!”) is in stark contrast to the facts around him as he loses control of his waning career, his paternal status, and eventually his sanity. “Will you take that phoney dream and burn it . . . ?” cries Biff, with consequences. Attention; and the ending shocks in its hard stillness.
Miller’s genius lies in creating this American Everyman with the potential for universal recognition. The production innovates by introducing racial discrimination as a backdrop to the family’s fortunes. Willy had clearly been successful, with his Studebaker and smart suits, and Happy is climbing the career ladder seemingly without opposition. So the snobbism of Matthew Seadon-Young as Willy’s boss, Howard Wagner, is palpable. Willy is yesterday’s man, and a new age is dawning. Yet the idea that the family’s survival is not just economic, but related to racial equality, is complex and exposes the ugliness of latent bias.
This brings a fresh angle on the corrosiveness of the American Dream when it proves hollow unless you are on the winning side. The neighbour Charley (Trevor Cooper), who supports Willy morally and financially to the end, now raises the possibility that his life is much easier because he’s white. Willy’s scenes with his ghostly brother, Ben (Joseph Mydell), who made his fortune from diamonds in Africa add another layer on what it takes to succeed and where.
Elliott, directing here with Miranda Cromwell, has brought off another triumph with a reworked classic. Anna Fleischle’s spare design, with floating window and door frames, never detracts, and lets the drama enfold unencumbered, bringing its own requiem to a domestic tragedy. The strong and moving performances all make this Salesman a valuable reinterpretation worth buying.
At the Piccadilly Theatre, 16 Denman Street, London W1, booking until 4 January.
Box office: phone 0844 412 6666. www.atgtickets.com/venues/piccadilly-theatre