Death Of A Salesman

I saw Wendell Pierce in Death Of A Salesman recently. I’m not a theatre goer and I arrived at the play in a roundabout way. I’ve been a fan of Pierce since seeing him in the all-time classic HBO series The Wire. I also very much enjoyed him in Treme, the story of the post-Hurricane Katrina period in the actor’s home city of New Orleans. When the reviews of the play appeared I wanted to see it, but the over three hour running time put me off. Then I heard him on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. By the time he had eloquently reduced himself and the host to tears on air, I was all in.

I saw the play at the Piccadilly Theatre In London and was fortunate to get close to the stage seats. The three or so hours were intense. And not just for my backside in the cramped and badly sprung seat. Pierce wrung every last ounce of emotion and intensity from his portrayal of Willy Loman. At the end he was teary-eyed and sweating, as was I. The play hit home to my core. I was very moved not only just at the end of the performance, but for several days after.

Great art should make one examine one’s own life. This version of Death Of A Salesman made me examine my life. Is the Arthur Miller classic about the end of the American dream? About ambition and failure? Delusion and mental illness? Is it about the function and dysfunction of the family? Is it about loneliness? Ageing? Self-worth? It’s possibly about all of these issues and more. It drifts in and out of reality and fantasy, the present and the past. The play sucks the audience in and it’s sometimes difficult to find your own bearings. How much of it is real? How much of it is happening in Willy’s head?

Loman as played is my age. He believes in meritocracy and the allure of the American dream. He is so invested in it and failure is a mortal sin. Work hard and good things will happen. Yet it’s slipping through his fingers and he resorts to delusion at times, at other times he’s desperate. Are his best days behind him? Are my best days behind me? I watch the torrent of emotion streaming across Pierce’s face and through Loman’s mind and my mind is racing too. Racing to absorb everything in front of me, racing to deal with all the thoughts and dreams and uncertainties flooding through my mind. I hadn’t expected to be so emotionally challenged.

Sharon D Clarke is outstanding as Willy’s wife. Arinze Kene plays Biff and wonderfully captures his love/hate relationship with his father. Martins Imhangbe conveys the immaturity and irresponsibility of Biff’s younger brother Happy, as he slyly leads his brother astray and abandons his father to humiliation.

The family at the core of the of the story are a black family in this version of Death Of A Salesman and that adds layers of complexity to the story. It doesn’t set out to be about race at its core, but prejudice overtly and covertly makes its presence felt. Willy’s affair with a white woman adds a new twist to this classic, you ponder on it still being the 1940s and many areas of American society still being segregated. Pushing his white lover into the bathroom in case the hotel detective finds them. The white waiters placing the father and two sons at the back of the room, while escorting two white clients to the prime stage front table. The Loman family being black sharpens the social drama, especially as Willy unravels and both begs for and rejects help from his employer and neighbour.

At the end, at the graveside, Willy’s delusion lands itself. Not the huge turn out he described for one of his contemporaries, a legend of the sales craft. A turn out he imagined for his own funeral. At the end, it’s his wife and sons and neighbour. Linda asking to be left alone, collapsed over the tombstone and emotionally delivering a spiritual song, tearful at the loss of her loved and tragic husband.

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