Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic review *****

Death of a Salesman

Young Vic, 17th May 2019

For those of you who, understandably, don’t have the time or inclination to filter through the vast opportunity set that is the London “subsidised” theatre sector and just want to spend your hard-earned coin on a proven theatrical production then the next few months is shaping up nicely. The following all have the Tourist’s cast iron guarantee seal of approval and, more importantly that of proper critics and audiences, so you can buy without fear of disappointment. Of course you must first check the subject is up your Strasse but the execution, in all the below cases, is top notch.

  • Sweat at the Gielgud Theatre. Lynn Nottage’s brilliant dissection of what’s wrong in America. Decently discounted for performances in the next couple of weeks.
  • The Lehman Trilogy at the Piccadilly Theatre. Three peerless actors in a history of the Lehman dynasty. Though here you have to pay up for the rest of the run.
  • Touching the Void at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Theatrical magic telling the story of Joe Simpson’s agonising descent down a mountain. A little bit of discounting for the beginning of the run in November.
  • Captain Corelli’s Mandolin at the Harold Pinter Theatre. More theatrical magic condensing Louis de Bernieres sprawling novel about love and war. Again there are some offers which make this very good value for money.
  • Equus at the Trafalgar Studios. A mesmerising production of Peter Shaffer’s classic play about a young man wth an unhealthy obsession with horses and his psychologist saviour.
  • The Son at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Florian Zeller’s gripping new play about a depressed teen. Marginal discounting in August.
  • Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s. Though be sure you like Ibsen. A rare West End bargain.

However topping all of this is the just announced transfer of the Young Vic Death of a Salesman to the Piccadilly Theatre from end October. Of course you could keep an eye out for returns on the day for the sold out run at the Young Vic or better still you could have listened to the Tourist months ago when he said this would be the play of the year. Because it is. But whatever you do don’t miss it.

And one final polite request before I tell you why it is so good. Bag some tickets to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre. Just seen it. Nick Hytner has only gone and done it again. Reimaging Shakespeare for our world, with a twist. I don’t care if you are “bored” by Shakespeare. You won’t be here. I am going to go again.

Oh and if I had to pick one sure fire winner from what’s coming up it would be Robert Icke’s version of The Doctor at the Almeida with Juliet Stevenson.

Right finally back to The Death of a Salesman. Now, as any fool knows, this is Arthur Miller’s masterpiece. It is Mr TFP’s favourite play. Wise man. Mrs TFP now knows why. As does the SO who, unusually, would fully endorse my 5* opinion. And this production shows the play off to maximum effect.

The gap between what is real and what Willy Loman imagines, between what Willy, and his two sons, Biff and Happy, think they can be and what they are is, a metaphor for the souring of the American Dream, that repeatedly and methodically bashes you over the head until it, as it should, hurts. But the personal tragedy should also be, as it is here, a massive emotional rush, as we see Willy fall apart, Linda Loman watching on, with a love that still cannot save him, Biff finally voicing his own pain and Happy trying to pretend his way out of his own disappointments. To elevate this into the drama stratosphere however, a director and creative team have to completely embrace Miller’s formal innovation. Being the stuff that goes on in Willy’s head. After all the original title for the play was The Inside of His Head. Especially all the memories from the past in Willy’s long first act reverie after he returns from his failed sales trip, (for which dreaming, personally, I blame the cheese sandwich).

Which Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cornwell, with the not inconsiderable assistance of Anna Fleischle’s set design, the barest, illuminated floating outlines of the Loman house, the Wagner office, Boston hotel room, Frank’s Chop House, the accompanying lighting design of Aideen Malone, Carolyn Downing’s sound and, especially, the composition of Femi Temowo. Miller specified a flute: this production delivers much, much more musically. Anna Fleischle writes bravely in the programme of how her own father’s suicide in Munich when she was in her 20’s and he, like Willy, in his 5o’s, informed her intention to capture the space between the real and the illusory.

With sound, light and held poses delineating the flashbacks in Willy’s head, visible to those around him as he mumbles t0 the past, ad especially his big brother Uncle Ben, the next thing we need is a sympathetic Willy. This we get from Wendell Pierce. Now not being a big consumer of US TV drama, (and never having made it beyond series 1 of The Wire – still on the bucket list), and never, as far as I can work out, having seen any of his film performances, the Tourist had no real expectation about Mr Pierce going in. If I am honest I would say I marginally preferred the last Willy I saw, Don Warrington, in the Royal Exchange production directed by Sarah Frankcom. Mr Warrington is a big man, his Willy prouder (as it were), crushed by the disappointment off his life. Wendell Pierce by contrast, in his slightly too big suit, straining to hear the voices from the past, still clutching at imagined opportunities to turn his, or Biff’s, or Happy’s, lives towards success, clinging to the idea of his being “well liked”, is a far more vulnerable Willy, perhaps closer to the text.

His portrayal leaves substantial scope for Sharon D Clarke to show us just how “good” a person Linda is. Whether acting or singing, Ms Grant is a force of nature. It’s what she holds back you see. When she finally lets rip at the boys after they abandon Willy at the restaurant, banging the table as she commands, “attention must be paid”, and then, when she asks Willy for forgiveness for not being able to cry at the bare funeral, I was in bits. Still am writing this.

And, as if that wasn’t enough there is Arinze Kene’s Biff. Now, as anyone who has seen Mr Kene on stage will know, this young man is prodigiously talented. As both a performer, and as he showed with Misty, as a writer. And Biff Loman might just be the greatest “supporting” actor male role in C20 theatre. As Arinze Kene shows here. When he finally rounds on Willy, for the witnessed sin with the Woman, I confess I was bloody scared. I am guessing that for Mr Kene some of Biff’s situation is personal. I gather that the 14 year old Arinze first got the acting bug when he stumbled into a workshop at the Arcola by accident. Yet another reason to thank the Arcola and Mehmet Ergen

There are multiple reasons why casting the Loman’s as an African-American family in pre-Civil Rights America works, but the cumulative frustration that crushes Biff as he realises that racism lies behind his disappointments, is one of the most powerful. All done with context and one line left hanging, (for that is the only liberty Marianne Elliot has taken with the text). How anyone will ever revert to a white Loman family after this, (and a near similar thesis for the Royal Exchange production), stumps me. Even the story of Ben making his fortune in Africa in a diamond mine takes on a whole new perspective.

Which just leaves Martins Imhangbe to complete the family quartet. Now Happy, as a role, can suffer against the dazzling characterisations of his Dad, Mum and Bro. Not here though. Mr Imhangbe, who impressed in An Adventure at the Bush, nailed Happy’s swagger, confidence and conciliatory optimism, whilst still recognising his own ambition is slowly being diminished.

The rest of the cast doesn’t disappoint when they are called upon in their key scenes: Trevor Cooper’s Charley when he lends money to an ungrateful Willy, now taking on an even sharper edge; Joseph Mydell imperiously striding off stage and up the aisle as Willy calls after the “ghost” of Ben; Ian Bonar as Bernard, now the lawyer, interrogating Willy as to why Biff flunked summer school, and then again as the very faintly disparaging waiter; Matthew Seadon-Young as the visibly flinching Howard when an humiliated Willy begs him for a desk job and all he wants to do is show off his new fangled tape recorder; Maggie Service as the indelicate, and white, Woman; and Jennifer Saayang and Nenda Neurer as the playful Miss Forsythe and her friend Letta.

Like I say. Tourist’s favourite play so far this year. As he thought it would be. Don’t miss it.

The Crucible at the Yard Theatre review ****

The Crucible

The Yard Theatre, Hackney Wick, 29th April 2019

The latest instalment in the Tourist’s engagement with this year’s unofficial Arthur Miller season was director Jay Miller’s often insightful, occasionally daft take on The Crucible which for me, and I know this is not the aesthete’s choice, probably just about trumps Death of a Salesman as Arthur Miller’s greatest play.

BTW it looks like, as any fool might have guessed, that the Young Vic and Marianne Elliott, and the stunning cast, have played a blinder with the now-opened revival of Death of a Salesman. This was predictably likely to be one of the best plays in London this year. And so it seems it is.

BTW again. I have been talking to some ypung people. Or rather I have been talking at some young people. At MS and MSC’s wedding amongst other ocassions so technically they had no means of escape. They, like MS and BD, hold Arthur Miller in low regard. I have a feeling that English Lit teachers may have been giving the poor chap a hard time. I get that there is some evidence in his life to support this, and revealed most explicitly in After The Fall, to pin him as an arrogant misogynist, who abandoned his disabled son, trashed the reputation of ex-wife Marilyn Monroe, stuck with impossibly idealistic political positions secure in his ivory tower and repeated himself to diminishing effect in terms of issues and form in his later plays. But, for me, his greatest plays are about as good as drama gets, and that is what matters.

And these plays can still thrive even when starved of creative sympathy. Especially The Crucible. As some sage observes in the Time Out review for this very production The Crucible is “built like a brick shithouse”. Correct. This apparently is the first time that The Yard Theatre has produced a classic play. It has played host to some others’ interpretations, notably Rash Dash’s wham-bam take on Three Sisters. But now Jay Miller and his young cast have given his namesake the shoestring, experimental once-over. Now the Yard, for the uninitiated, is exactly how a privileged, well-off, ageing, ex-City, liberal, insulated, South West Londoner imagines a theatre in edgy East London should look like. Scruffy space, ropey bogs, wooden benches now helpfully rendered fit for purpose with plastic seats. On a site by a canal, in an old industrial estate, next to the ginger line, two brew pubs on the site, (nice pizza courtesy of CRATE), creative spaces, studios, artisanal food-makers, cheek by jowl with old school light industry and breakers yards’. And graffiti. Lots of graffiti. Oh and beards. Lots of beards.

Love it. The Tourist is now looking for ways to get some of his chums to make the trek there. For even with the new material it presents this theatre is making a mark. I like the look of the upcoming Armadillo and its cast and hope that something beyond that might tempt his picky punters. The Yard is now getting Arts Council funding so expect it, like the Arcola, to go from strength to strength.

Probably should have pushed those punters a bit harder on this Crucible. they would have been intrigued. There are a few quirks – the TV screen announcing characters and other visual distractions sat on a chair, the spooky, masked witches that pop up in the later scenes, some extravagant Massachusetts c. 1692 accents, European regie-theater use of microphones, a spot of karaoke – that might bemuse rather than illuminate. But there are other innovations that manifestly do work. The cast kicking off on name-tagged chairs describing characters and context, and even stage directions and Miller’s own footnotes (A not J though that might have worked too); then slowly donning “period” dress (designed by Oliver Cronk) and taking on those accents; the doubling and truly gender blind casting; some dramatic lighting (Jess Bernberg) and ensemble effects; Jonah Brody’s ambient score and Josh Anio Grigg’s killer sound design. Brechtian and disorientating for sure but ramping up the strangeness of the events here and counterpointing the McCarthyite parable.

Since The Crucible is actually a belter of a story independent of its meaning then all this collectively serves to make us more engaged in what is happening as the hysteria in this ramshackle Salem boils over and the epic sacrifices by the Proctors are made. For surely The Crucible is as epic as anything Brecht or Euripides ever conjured up despite its superficially “historical” setting. Hence the link back to those opening quotes from Arthur M highlighting the historical inaccuracies. This is where Jay Miller’s mad genius pays dividends across the full 3 hours he commits to the production.

Young Mr Miller is plainly a clever fellow. For not only has smartly subverted the mythic quality of the play, whilst still retaining its dramatic power, (though like I say I have never actually see a bad production of The Crucible), and emotional connection, (I don’t actually well up when JP hangs on to his name but …..), but he has also feminised A Miller’s muscular language, exaggerated in The Crucible by the C17 New England idiom, with his casting of Caoilfhionn Dunne as John Proctor and Sophie Duval as Giles Corey (as well as Abigail Williams’s chief sidekick Mercy Lewis). Now as it happens these two are the best of the very talented bunch on show. I have seen Ms Dunne before, most recently in Mike Bartlett’s Wild, in The Nest at the Young Vic, on my allotted night at the Gate’s Dear Elizabeth and, most memorably at that same theatre in Suzy Storck, (where Cecile Tremolieres was, as she is here, the innovative designer). This was proof of just how much emotion she can wring from a character and so it proved again with her John Proctor, dim at first, but full beam by the time we get to the confession. Sophie Duval showed us intense pathos when Giles Corey loses his book reading wife to the madness but also plenty of laughs with Corey’s pithy comments about the venal motives of those egging on the teenage accusers.

It is usual to have sympathy for the scorned Abigail Williams. Not much though in Nina Cassells’s take where she has no discernible remorse for the carnage she unleashes. The scene when she meets Proctor, who begs her to recant, is especially chilling. The argument between, in this case, the two women, contrasts with the tetchy and tense arguments between JP and his (good)wife, played by Emma D’Arcy, in the Proctor house and then later the desperate exchange as JP wills her to lie on his behalf. I didn’t see Ms D’Arcy in Mrs Dalloway at the Arcola, (couldn’t find a date that worked for the willing SO), but it seems we missed a trick there. I am reminded that she mastered a tricky role in the unfairly maligned, if scattergun, Against at the Almeida as a complex student. The female side of the casting is completed by Sorcha Groundsell as the alternately, bolshie, brave and intimidated Mary Warren, (the weakest of A Miller’s Crucible characters IMHO). (I gather she has signed up for Netflix series The innocents – good on her). And a spirited (literally) Lucy Vandi as Tituba and the irksome Mr and Mrs Nurse.

As for the gents, Syrus Lowe, fresh from The Inheritance, offers a petulant, self aggrandising Reverend Parris, the willing executioner, as well as the officious Willard and Cheever, Jack Holden manages to avoid the trap of letting Reverend Hale descend into melodramatic self-pity as his faith is broken, and Jacob James Beswick stands out as “the Judges” Hathorne and Danforth, who care more about order and power than true justice.

The doubling shows us that there is good and bad in all of us, though you have to hope yours isn’t going to be exposed by witchcraft trials, and that we are all capable of overlooking or conniving in state sanctioned persecution. The Crucible was written as allegory prompted by his mate Elia Kazan’s naming of 8 members of the Group Theatre to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Following the opening of The Crucible Miller also went before the Committee in 1957, had his passport confiscated, was held in contempt and sentenced to a fine and imprisonment. The “conviction” was overturned the following year but hardened Miller’s political views. He made up with Kazan years later. (As it happens Miller managed to get his work banned in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s as well, proving he was doing something right). Whilst, as I have said, the message of The Crucible and its dramatic power can stand all sorts of treatment, there is no doubt that Jay Miller’s radical take, at its best, offers an exciting and dislocating perspective on the play. A Miller took liberties with the “true” story of the Salem witch-hunts. Jay Miller is simply returning the favour.

The Crucible, like most of A Miller’s greatest plays, is ripped straight from the play book of Sophocles. John Proctor is the archetype tragic hero whose peripeteia (reversal of fortune) is brought on by his hamartia (fatal flaw) which leads him to anagnorisis (self discovery). All the very best plays, the ones that jump out, thump us in chest and head and leave us exhilarated, follow the Greek rules moreorless closely. Well maybe I exaggerate a bit. Though the following, including some of the Greek originals, suggests I might just be right. These plainly should be on everyone’s theatrical bucket list.

  • The Oresteia – Aeschylus
  • Oedipus the King – Sophocles
  • Medea – Euripides – (I know – it broke the rules)
  • Tamburlaine the Great – Marlowe – (see if you don’t end up quite liking the fella)
  • Hamlet – Shakespeare
  • Phedre – Racine
  • Woyzeck – Georg Buchner
  • The Master Builder – Ibsen
  • Long Day’s Journey Into Night – Eugene O’Neill – (four for the price of one)
  • All My Sons – Arthur Miller – (or Death of a Salesman or A View From The Bridge)
  • The Goat, or Who is Sylvia – Edward Albee
  • The Ferryman – Jez Butterworth – (work with me on this)

See what I mean.

Death of a Salesman at the Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester review *****

Death of  a Salesman

Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester, 12th November 2018

The greatest English language play from the second half of the C20? Waiting for Godot? All That Fall? Or maybe Beckett’s Endgame? No, too tricky by half. A Streetcar Named Desire? It just about sneaks in time-wise but too narrow in scope. Long Day’s Journey Into Night? Maybe but O’Neill has one tone, though certainly not one dimension. Staying in the US perhaps yu might say Glengarry Glen Ross or Angels in America? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or perhaps you think us Brits top the Yankees. Stoppard or Pinter. Or, my personal favourite Caryl Churchill. Serious Money, Top Girls, Cloud 9 or The Skriker anyone?

Nah. It is pretty hard not to argue that Arthur Miller comes out on top. So then it is just which play. A View from the Bridge? Perhaps though much depends on performance. The Crucible? Bullet proof and the mighty Billers reckons it is Miller’s best. For me though it might just be Death of a Salesman. Mind you I have only seen it once before this, though I see London is set to have a bite of the cherry next year with a new production at the Young Vic directed by Marianne Elliot (War Horse, Curious Incident, Angels in America, Company) with Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman, Sharon D Clarke as Linda and Arinze Kene as Biff. I wouldn’t hang about if I were you. This will sell out before it opens I’m sure.

Anyway this production will follow the Manchester Royal Exchange production in seeing Willy through African-American eyes. Adding an extra dimension to the unravelling of his particular American Dream, particularly here with a white wife, making Willy’s and the boys “exclusion” even more pointed. The thing about Death of a Salesman is that you get the big picture satire of the “Dream”, the promise that everyone in America will have the opportunity to achieve riches and success through hard work, application and initiative, but you also get a family tragedy, set across just 48 hours, of near Grecian proportions. All filtered through a formal experiment, as time and event overlap in Willy’s head, which demands attention, but is never intimidating, for the audience. From the very first line Willy utters “it’s all right, I came back” you know what these characters are saying and why they are saying it. If you cannot feel the pain of Willy and those around him then I respectfully suggest you go back to your home planet.

Sarah Churchwell, who is a professor of American Literature at the University of London, has written a very interesting programme note which explains that Willy’s failure to reap the rewards he thinks he deserves, the wealth and the status, the “success”, also points to the perversion of an original “American Dream” which was predicated not just on the trappings of consumerism, but was rooted in a “pursuit of happiness” that hadn’t been degraded by individualistic capitalism. If you “win” all the material trappings are yours. If you “lose” then don’t expect any reciprocal duty of care from the society around you. Blimey. Even if you might not entirely agree with this, the point that Miller’s play, and it’s not so sub-by sub-texts, can hold up under the weight of such interpretation, whilst still putting you through the emotional grinder, is testament to its brilliance. 

I’ll spare you, and me, some half-baked amateur analysis. You can do that yourselves. What about this production? Well this was the Tourist’s inaugural visit to the Royal Exchange now that he is a full-time layabout. Mancunians have much to be proud of in their city, but surely the Royal Exchange must rank somewhere near the top. A super space, a sphere plonked inside the Great Hall of the Victorian commodities exchange, refurbished last after the 1996 IRA bomb, with vibrant public spaces and bars/restaurants spaced around the auditorium. Sorry if I sound like a patronising London twat but I was bowled over. Inside is even better. Now I may have benefitted from splashing out on a front row, stalls seat, but this is, by some way the most comfortable perch I have ever viewed from. I am back for the Mother Courage next year, (and the revival of The Skull in Connemara up the road at the Oldham Coliseum). Can’t wait. 

Now obviously this being my first visit to the Royal Exchange this means that I have missed AD Sarah Frankcom’s previous hits as director, notably the collaborations with Maxine Peake. The Masque of Anarchy, Hamlet, The Skriker, A Streetcar Named Desire, Happy Days. For which I can only blamed personal greed for just like Willy I spent too long chasing money and not enough time feeding the brain. 

Anyway, holding back the tears of disappointment, at least now I was able to see another Royal Exchange regular, Don Warrington, collaborating with Ms Frankcom. I saw his Lear from Talawa Theatre on the telly, which, unlike many others, did not disappoint, but seeing Mr Warrington in the flesh here was mind-blowing. He is a few years older than Willy who is 63, and I assume that Arthur Miller saw Willy as white not black, but as far as I am concerned Don Warrington was Willy Loman. Maybe I am losing the plot like Willy but this for me was as real as theatre gets. It probably helps that I was front row, in the round, with Leslie Ferguson’s stripped back set presenting no obstructions, but this was electric. 

When Mr Warrington was sat in front of me, hunched forward, fingers twitching, the weight of his disappointment weighing down his body, it was as much as I could do to stop myself jumping forward and shouting “don’t do it Willy”. When the inevitable happened at the end I admit to a tear. Maybe Don Warrington is petulant, snappish, irritable and dominating in real life. Maybe he has been crushed by the weight of his own expectations. Maybe he hears things. I doubt it. I reckon he is more like the wry, smooth, relaxed-in-the-paddock police commissioner in Death in Paradise. Either way he is a brilliant actor. Performance of the year so far this year, no question, and there has been some pretty stiff competition. Only wish I had seen him in All My Sons here in 2016.

Mind you Ashley Zhangazha’s Biff runs him pretty close. It has been my pleasure to see Mr Zhangazha’s on a few occasions now, Terror, The Lottery of Love, Human Animals and most, recently, carrying the Public Arts  community version of Pericles at the NT, but again this was another step up. That is not to downplay Maureen Beattie’s Linda or Buom Tihngang’s Happy, or the supporting cast, but the scene where Willy and Biff argue is hair on the back of the neck stiff. It felt like Biff, even in his football days, just didn’t want to believe. Another highlight is the first appearance of Trevor A Toussaint’s imposing Uncle Ben, Willy’s successful, but now dead, brother. Don Warrington’s Willy visibly shrinks when he sees him. Or Howard’s (Rupert Hill) agonising embarrassment when Willy begs him, getting ever hoarser, for a desk job. Or Willy’s pathetic excuses when Biff turns up, in flashback at the Boston hotel, to find him with “Miss Francis” (Rina Mahoney). Or the touching devotion that Linda shows in believing the family’s money problems are on the brink of being solved.

The original title of Miller’s play was, famously, The Inside of His Head. Willy’s interior world and the exterior reality are in constant flux. To stage a production with this much clarity, on a copper disc, with no scenery bar a few branches overhead, no rooms, and few props, in a raised circle on which the non-speaking cast rest.and watch, in a theatre in the round, which itself is in a sphere, could hardly have been more apposite. This staging, together with the casting, may make for a less immediate connection than in other, more “traditional” productions but, for me, Death of a Salesman is as much food for the brain as blood for the heart, if you will forgive the mangled metaphors. And it brings home, from this now 70 year old play, that Willy is still right here, right now in many men. 

A triumph.