The audience at the Piccadilly tonight are positively buzzing with anticipation for this production, coming hot off the heels of rave reviews from its stint at the Young Vic earlier this year. With an all-powerful and mighty cast led by the awe-inspiring Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman and the magnificent Sharon D.Clarke as his wife Linda, we’re in great hands.
This play has such a deep and devastating understanding of the human condition it requires a whole company with the depth and strength to carry and convey it. In their excavation of the dark trenches of discovering who we are and what our purpose is in life, they truly do. The story considers the pursuit of the American dream, negotiated by an African American family residing in New York in the late 1940’s. We meet 60 year old Willy at a time of his life when he is neck deep in an unnerving emotional journey. His life as a travelling salesman is exhausting and barely fruitful. In the throes of a desperate search for validation through his work and how he’s perceived and respected by his wife, his sons and himself, his mental state becomes increasingly unstable. It’s not just about paying the bills; Willy desperately needs to feel purposeful. His relationship with his hero-worshipped son Biff, masterfully and passionately played by Sope Dirisu, is unbelievably tense and sometimes explosive. He piles on the pressure in his desperation to see his son achieve greatness while boasting and making the comparison that everybody knows the great Willy Loman. Meanwhile his rather forgotten other son Happy, charismatically portrayed by Natey Jones, is ever eager to impress his dad, but Biff remains his project.
Pierce is so astoundingly truthful in his playing of Loman. He conveys the nervous twitch of deep insecurity, of being lost, along with the highs of self-delusion so expertly that it’s wrenching to watch. He’s said that the impact of playing this part has affected him deeply and is as difficult as anything he could imagine. I’m distracted by introspection after watching it so to live it nightly for more than three hours must be unsettling to say the least! It may be clichéd but it really is an acting masterclass. Sharon D.Clarke’s Linda is stunning; shining with passion and love for her family. Her pain and anguish is palpable and her performance so tender and moving. I wasn’t the only audience member who wiped away a tear. The staging was incredibly effective. There’s a slow rising and falling of scenery, windows and doorways never completely disappearing. As Loman’s mind fizzes with confusion there are many flashback scenes and short regretful moments replayed and the awareness of these partially floating remains of scenery feel like his negative memories are ever pervasive for him and his fragmented mind. These moments are hauntingly accompanied by the flashing and sound of a vintage press camera or the squeaky rewind of old tape.
In a recent interview on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Pierce talks of declaring what your values are and then acting on them for a purposeful life. That the beauty of life should be found on the inside and not the outside – and this is something the play’s character Willy Loman misses. It’s a fascinating, insightful and thought-provoking play and this production has the energy, passion and the destructive truth to reveal all the frailty in their lives. It was a privilege to see it.
Written by: Arthur Miller
Directed by: Marianne Elliott & Miranda Cromwell
Produced by: Igor & Simon Evans
Designed by: Anna Fleischle
Box Office: 085448717623
Booking Link: https://www.thepiccadillytheatre.com/death-of-a-salesman
Booking Until: 4 January 2020