Death of a Salesman: this classic play is still vital

Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman
Wendell Pierce puts in an intense performance as Willy Loman

Death of a Salesman

By Arthur Miller
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell
Running at the Young Vic, London, until 13 July

Death of a Salesman is highly regarded as an American classic. Travelling salesman Willy Loman (Wendell Pierce) is finding it harder and harder to continue with his job, while his wife Linda (Sharon Clarke) worries about his sanity. Meanwhile, Willy’s two adult sons drift aimlessly: former football star Biff (Arinzé Kene) dreams of owning a ranch, while his younger brother Happy (Martins Imhangbe) is a compulsive womaniser. As Willy tries to find a position closer to home, and the brothers attempt to set up in business together, the pivotal events that determined the course of the characters’ lives are gradually revealed.

Two main themes run through the play. One of these is the impact on later life of missed chances – Biff’s failure to take advantage of a scholarship and Willy’s decision to spurn an offer by a relative to work for him condemn both to a life of mediocrity. Indeed, the narrative drive of the play partly comes from the Loman family’s futile attempts to make up for those fatal errors.

However, the more important point that Miller is trying to make is about the emptiness of the American dream. Willy stayed at his job because of his desire to be a part of something bigger, yet he is ruthlessly thrown on the scrapheap by his employer the second he is perceived to be a liability. This production adds race into the mix by making the Loman family African-American, while the other characters are white.

Wendell Pierce, better known for his role as Lt “Bunk” Moreland in the TV series The Wire, is great in the role of Willy Loman. On the surface the character is all amiability, but Pierce conveys Loman’s intense pride well, especially in the scene where Loman insists on treating financial assistance from Trevor Cooper’s Charley as a loan. So when Loman finally realises that neither his hopes for a job closer to home nor his ambitions for his sons are going to be realised his anger becomes volcanic, setting the scene for the final showdown and the play’s tragic conclusion. Kene and Imhangbe are also convincing as two troubled young men.

This is a long play – if you count the interval, the production runs for nearly three-and-a-half hours. But there are very few wasted moments and even the minor subplots prove interesting. The transformation of Biff’s friend Bernard (Ian Bonar) from nervous waterboy to successful lawyer, for example, provides an ironic counterpoint to the story of the Lomans. This is an excellent production that well deserved the standing ovation it received on press night.