Make-Belief Humans

Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman, Young Vic Theatre, London (Directors: Marianne Elliott & Miranda Cromwell)

By Sascha Krieger

Reality is a fickle thing. In Arthur Miller’s classic, travelling salesman Willie Loman increasingly loses his grip on it, getting swept up in memories, fantasies and long lost dreams. In the Young Vic’s new production, reality is not much to begin with. Anna Fleischle’s set focuses on fragments: door and window frames hang suspended from the ceiling, so do pieces of furniture, they are lowered or brought forward when needed, providing an illusion of reality while emphasising its sketchy nature. The world is skeletal, no more than a hint of a physical presence long dissolved or never existing in the first place. Willie Loman is a man of illusions, of elaborate dreams, a captive of self-deception, a victim of his own make-belief. This is the world he lives in: a vague idea of a half-realised reality in which nothing has substance. So it doesn’t really matter whether we’re in the present or the past, the „real“ or the „imagined“. All of this is a fantasy, born of the dream that’s called American, of its promise and its lies.

Image: Sascha Krieger

To which another level is added in this production: here, the Lomans are a black middle class family, their urge to assimilate and join the American narrative carrying with it the baggage of a long history of racism and exclusion. When Willie is helped by but refuses a job from his white neighbour Charley, the uneasy relationship, the mixture of pride and shame takes on additional significance as does the increasingly hostile response by the young – white – boss to Willie’s please for a job and the audacity with which he demands being treated as equal. With the production firmly rooted in a vision, memory, dream of 1940s America, the race element transforms these conflicts into something even more existential, complex, fundamental than the classist issues at the heart of the original text. Loman’s failure, his rejection, his being patronised, For example, Charley, played with an amicable roughness by Trevor Cooper, while genuine, is a more ambivalent figure here, representing a privilege that allows him to feed his „friend“ with any help he seems fit, making the relationship unstably lopsided.

The story of glass ceilings, of the steadfast nature of class boundaries, becomes even more urgent – and present – when charged with a different though often corresponding set of discriminatory boundaries. Where the original Willie, failed „only“ to overcome limits of class, this one’s task is a lot more impossible and turns into a study of a country plunged into crisis over its being founded on lies and promises, it never meant to keep. Wendell Pierce, of The Wire fame, is an earthquake-like Willie, a force of nature, volöatile, explosive, a deeply troubled man, revolting against his fate while succumbing to it. He rants, he protests, he mumbles his way into oblivion, increasingly erratic, falling apart into fragments of a personality no longer creating a full picture, a splintering mosaic of a man, whose identity disappears as the borrowed one society had provided is stripped away with this job, and beneath the surface is nothing, an assimilated zero who has given all of his self and dignity up for an illusion, an illusion of an equality never granted.

Thus, the production’s two strands – the flimsiness of reality and the re-invention of the story of the human being thrown away as one charged with systemic racism – intertwine, strengthen each other in a story of human ambition of suffering that is as specific as it is universal, harking back to the uneasy relationship between classism and racism that, for example, Lynn Nottage’s Sweat is exploring on another London stage right now, and that has become an ever more explosive issue in many, if not all, Western societies. This production conveys its message through superb and completely authentic acting, eschewing the bunter pathos so often found in English theatre. Sharon D. Clarke is a magnificent Linda, dignified, yet with a controlled anger, the result of centuries, even more terrifying as it is only hinted at in one short moment. Arinzé Kene’s Biff is a deeply troubled, lost young man, physically fighting to find himself, his body a taught struggle of identity, captured in expectations that make it a prison of itself. This present self is wonderfully contrasted with the iconic athlete poses he strikes in the more abstract flashback scenes that, set apart by gesture and lighting, are just another level of the illusion this world has dissolved into. Martins Imhangbe’s Happy, while being a little too much of a stereotypical postmodern dandy, also conveys the sense of being lost, an illusion, a make-belief human.

As they all are. Made to believe they might belong if only they worked hard enough, they’re cast away when no longer needed, and only retained when of use. Stripped of their identity, told to assimilate, they bough the dream, the fantasy, the promise and are now gloating in their nightmarish reality, ghosts of a broken promise, spectres of a society sustaining oitself on its original sin and perpetuating it through lies. As a drama of discrimination and the effects it has on people, a discrimination only noticed when it’s too late, this Death of a Salesman is a devastatingly urgent re-invention of the classic play, revealing urgent issues plaguing our present and connecting it with the unsolved and unrecognised sins of the past. If you want to know how we as a society have arrived at where we are, see this production. And get near-perfect theatre and some of the most truthful and intense acting you’ve ever seen into the bargain.

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