Theatre Review: Death of a Salesman

Rating: 5

By Richard Barber

Widely regarded as one of the outstanding plays of the 20th century, Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning Death of a Salesman is being revived in London in Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s reimagining and may yet
turn out to be one of the outstanding productions of the 21st century. 

 It is, simply, superb. Intense and serious with little hope of a happy ending (the clue is in the title), it runs for over three hours and is no carousel ride. But there’s not one duff note in a heart-wrenching evening that will leave audiences drained but electrified. 

 Willy Loman (Wendell Pierce) is the travelling salesman of the title, driving hundreds of miles a week selling his wares (we’re never told what). But the times are changing and Willy, now in his sixties, is being left in the slipstream of so-called progress. He lives with his loving, if long-suffering, wife, Linda (Sharon D Clarke) in upwardly mobile Brooklyn. Additionally, in this production, he and his family are black and that adds a piquancy, an edge to proceedings.  

 To all intents and purposes, Willy is spiralling downwards into total collapse, his increasingly blunted selling bravado mirrored by his disintegrating relationship with his elder son, Biff (faultless Sope Dirisu).  

 Biff was a promising football star but failed maths in his senior year and dropped out when he saw Willy with another woman while visiting him in Boston. He wavers between going home to try to fulfil Willy’s dream for him as a businessman or ignoring his father by moving out west to be a farmhand where he’ll feel happy. And then he takes to stealing as a sort of measure of success.

His younger brother, Harold – widely known as Happy (excellent Natey Jones) – is a cheerful philanderer with the attention span of a 10-year-old. And it is these two boys that their mother tries to cajole into shape, both for their own good and to prop up her husband’s expectations for them. 

 Willy’s descent into despair is both painful and riveting to watch in Pierce’s mesmerising performance as he runs the full gamut of emotions from hope to hopelessness. He’s matched every step of the way by Clarke’s dignified, doomed attempts to reconcile father and elder son while straining every sinew to imbue her husband with a realistic belief in himself and his future. 

There’s a wince-making scene when Willy all but pleads with his young boss Howard (a spot-on turn from Matthew Seadon-Young) to transfer him to the New York office. Instead, he ends up losing his job – and then his life.

Not for the faint-hearted, then, but essential theatre, nonetheless. 

At the Piccadilly Theatre, London until January 4: 0844-871 7630,