Death of a Salesman – Piccadilly Theatre – Review & More
by Pat Levy
When Death of a Salesman was written in 1949 it was radical theatre – the aspirations of the white middle classes brought down by their self delusion and failure to see the worth in what they already have. Willy Loman wheels between puffed-up pride and utter self-doubt, while teaching his mistaken values to his sons. In this production, the conundrum is given further depth by making the Lomans African American, while Willy’s employer, his neighbours and the woman he has a fling with are white.
The play is a classic of twentieth-century drama but with a running time of over three hours it demands quality of acting and direction to sustain an audience’s attention, and that it certainly does. The play is imaginatively and skilfully co-directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, set design with its suspended minimalist stage props reflects the dreamlike quality of the play, gospel and jazz music sung by the cast changes its focus and the acting is powerful and affecting throughout.
Aficionados of The Wire will welcome seeing Wendell Pierce on the stage, not as the cigar smoking, well-dressed detective Bunk Moreland but as Willy Loman, the New York salesman of the play’s title. All tragic heroes possess a flaw in their character and Willy Loman’s is his fond belief in the American Dream. It is also the source of the strength of mind that has enabled him so far to make something of his life in a ruthlessly competitive society. The superb Sharon D Clarke plays the dignified wife who watches the family tragically fall apart and who knows him better than he knows himself. Together they have made a family, brought up two sons and survived – until now.
Loman’s present despair is interlaced with dream sequences and memories, all of which lead us up to his final decision. His sons are at one moment bright eyed teenagers hanging on his every word and at another world weary cynical adults dealing with the failure of their father’s expectations.
Willy Loman’s dream begins to collapse as we watch his son Biff fails to live up to his demands and he himself is exposed as a philanderer. His job as a travelling salesman grinds to a halt, he is rejected with an almost physical disgust by his employer, and he is humiliatingly offered work by his white neighbour. He takes the only way out that he can see, leaving financially secure but ruined lives behind him.
There’s nothing like the experience of a well crafted theatre performance. It leaves a Netflix binge in the shadows. For three hours or so you, the audience, take part in Willy Loman’s life, feel his fragility, pity his long suffering wife, want to shout at Biff to study for his exams. My experience of this was highlighted when Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, as soccer playing teenage Biff, accidentally dropped the ball and an audience member threw it back to him. We were there in the story with them.
Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution – London County Council
From the challenging vitality of Pierces’ Loman to the comfortable familiarity of the whodunit: Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, now in its third year in the former council chamber of the London County Council and Greater London Council, disbanded in 1986 by the Conservative government. The play offers two hours of gentle melodrama and a surprise ending in an almost perfect setting. The circular council chamber where once Ken Livingstone held sway over a Labour-led council in defiance of the Tory government across the river provides the perfect courtroom-style setting. Selected members of the audience get to decide the ‘verdict’, the audience reclines in comfortable leather seats, snacks and drinks lodged in the little fold away tables in front of them. The challenge at times is not to join in with shouts pointing out the red herrings. Challenging, socially aware theatre it ain’t but its panto-like quality makes it a fun afternoon.