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Theatre review: Death Of A Salesman

‘Almost
unbearable
to watch’:
Pierce is
devastating
as Willy
Loman
PICTURE: BRINKHOFF-MOEGENBURG

REVIEW

Death Of A Salesman

Young Vic, London ★★★★★

WENDELL PIERCE probably can’t help it. In the poster for this hugely anticipated revival of Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic, the man who played Meghan Markle’s lawyer dad in Suits and detective ‘Bunk’ Moreland in The Wire has that same fearless glint in his eye that he uses for his coiled on-screen characters.

But in his London stage debut Pierce’s proud salesman Willy Loman is, in fact, brimful of fear. Nearly 40 years on the road selling has made him dog-tired — but what has really worn him out is the delusion that he has status and respect.

He mistakenly thinks his once-promising, now under-achieving sons Happy and Biff (the excellent Martins Imhangbe and Arinzé Kene), and his wife and only defender Linda (Sharon D Clarke), still believe he is a success.

And yet, though Willy’s body is tired, his mind continues to race with memories as it attempts to work out where in this life of hard graft it all went wrong.

Miller pretty much invented the flashback with this play. And in Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s ambitiously staged production, Anna Fleischle’s brilliant design of the Loman household doubles as the shadowy recesses of Willy’s mind. Windows and furniture are suspended in mid-air, then drop into place as his misfiring synapses conjure another scene from his past.

Formidable: Sharon D Clarke with Wendell Pierce

This isn’t the first black Willy Loman. But the decision here to opt against an all-black cast, and instead show the Lomans as a black family in post-war America, allows the play to resonate with African American experience in a way that has rarely been seen before.

The formidable Clarke — recent winner of an Olivier Award for her title-role performance in Caroline, Or Change — is superb as the female rock in a family of weak men.

And Pierce’s portrait of a disintegrating man is so heart-rending that it’s almost unbearable to watch.