Review – Death of a Salesman, Young Vic, 3rd July 2019

Death of a SalesmanMy third time of seeing (arguably) Arthur Miller’s finest play, but it was the Squire of Sidcup’s first time, and, as you know, you always remember your first time. Miller’s portrayal of Willy Loman, visually crumbling before us all, never fails to hit the heartstrings and I felt especially sorry for the young woman in the row in front, who started crying about an hour before the end and never let up. Since the introduction of the Internet, travelling salesmen like Willy are a thing of the past; old jokes like “I travel in ladies’ underwear” make no sense to anyone under the age of 40. But crushing guilt, bitter loneliness, that ghastly inability to regain one’s former success, and the desperate clutching of the feeblest straws to keep one’s hopes alive, are timeless concepts that everyone encounters at some point throughout their lives.

WillyThis production has been a sensational success and it’s not hard to see why. A phenomenal cast headed by Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke, lucid direction from Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, sparse but creative design from Anna Fleischle, evocative and enchanting music from Femi Temowo, all within the inspirational intimacy of the Young Vic, make three hours fly by.

Willy and CharleyAbove the bare stage dangle sticks of furniture that drop into place when required then fly up again afterwards; a meagre window-frame, a small telephone table, comfortless chairs. The only other props are the refrigerator – standing as a symbol for those necessities in life one can never quite afford – and the gas heater, which hides the rubber tubing that Willy might use to end his life. A flight of stairs is barely visible through the back door; there is life outside, but it’s of no consequence to us.

Willy and the boysThe music, played live by Mr Temowo as he wanders in and out of the recesses of the set, feels of greater significance than in any other production of this play that I’ve seen. When Willy is hallucinating his conversations with his young sons, the music comes in and acts as their unseen responses; it seems to create a balance in Willy’s mind and provides support where, usually, silence is deafening. It also provides Biff’s responses when he’s on the phone to Linda; whether this supplies the support she needs, or whether it’s another example of the deceptions that the family can’t help but feed each other, you decide.

BrothersOh those deceptions… that, for me, was the chief element of the play that this production really brought out. This is a family founded on the thinnest of ice, from Willy’s infidelity in Boston, to the fabrication of Biff’s successes out West, from the true source of Willy’s income to Biff’s kleptomania. Willy’s famous contradictions show that he has no consistency in the truth; one minute the Studebaker is the finest car on the planet, the next minute the goddam thing should be prohibited. When Biff and Happy go out on the pull, there’s not an ounce of truth in the stories they spin to impress the girls. Willy insists that, in his interview with Bill Oliver, Biff shouldn’t pick anything off the floor if Oliver drops it; yet, in a brilliant moment of enhancing the original stage direction, what does Willy do when boss Howard drops his lighter? Lies, deceptions, inconsistencies, contradictions.

Wendell PierceWendell Pierce is an outstanding Willy Loman. Somehow, he can make his physical appearance rise and sink depending on the character’s mood and confidence, visible transformations that instantly convey the weight on his soul; at Willy’s lowest he tremors and closes down like a Parkinson’s or dementia patient. It’s extraordinary to watch. When he constantly complains about Linda or Happy interrupting him, it doesn’t come across as the usual bad-tempered bullying, rather it’s a desperate insecurity revealing that the only thing he really wants in life is to be proud of Biff. Mr Pierce’s stage authority is immense; all eyes on him when he speaks, he gives a performance of superb texture, where changes of pace, mood, direction and power abound.

Arinze Kene and Sharon D. ClarkeI’ve not seen Sharon D. Clarke on stage before but I can see why she’s steadily on her way to becoming a national treasure. Linda Loman can sometimes come across as a bit of a mousey drudge, but not this one. She’s a powerhouse of emotions, made strong by years of supporting a good man but a failed one, devoted to protecting him even if it means writing her children out of her life. You never doubt that this Linda would follow through with her threats. But it’s all delivered with supreme control and terrific stage presence.

Ben and WillyArinzé Kene plays Biff with great honesty and integrity; he never really comes across as the sporting hero or powerful businessman that he’d like us to think he is – because he’s not. From the very start, this Biff is riddled with failure; there’s no pretence, no assumption of confidence in advance of his meeting with Oliver, and his respect for his father is always compromised (unsurprisingly). Physically, Mr Kene is the least statuesque of the four family members, and it works to his advantage; that stylised, slow-motion, entry on stage where we all know he’s going to burst in upon his father with his mistress, and there’s nothing anyone can do to prevent it, is a perfect moment of agonising, looming fate, Mr Kene stealing upon the scene with virtual invisibility.

Happy chats up Miss ForsytheMartins Imhangbe’s Happy, on the other hand, appears every inch the Young Pretender, but without the approval or patronage of his parents; constantly shoving himself forward only to be ignored or slapped down. There’s both comedy and tragedy in his excellent interactions with Mr Pierce; Willy totally ignores the conversational contributions – indeed the presence – of his second son. No wonder the boy has grown into a dissolute layabout whose only efforts go into sensationally impressive chat-up techniques.

Bernard and WillyThe rest of the cast give tremendous support, with finely judged characterisations from Ian Bonar as the “anaemic” Bernard and Trevor Cooper as the long-suffering Charley; Matthew Seadon-Young is grimly unforgiving as Howard Wagner and smartly chipper as Stanley the waiter; and Jennifer Saayeng and Nenda Neurer, as Miss Forsythe and Letta, are made splendidly uncomfortable by the unexpectedly brutal Loman family interactions.

That WomanThis is a strong, gripping production, overflowing with conviction and majestic throughout. The run at the Young Vic is fully sold out, and it’ll be a different experience when it transfers to the much larger Piccadilly Theatre in October, but I’m sure equally rewarding. Highly recommended.

Linda and Willy with BenP. S. I did enjoy and admire the dignity of the curtain call; Mr Pierce, quite rightly, taking centre stage and very appreciatively acknowledging all parts of the auditorium for their response, but also taking care that his fellow performers were fully recovered from the incredible emotion of the final scene before inviting them to join in recognising the audience. I can’t remember seeing that before; it showed a generosity and concern towards the other cast members that fair warmed my heart, it did.

 Matthew Seadon-Young and Wendell PierceP. P. S. This was my first visit to the Young Vic since the late Pete Postlethwaite’s King Lear ten years ago. Very impressed with its exciting vibe and the comfort and sight lines in the auditorium. However, I was most unimpressed with only allowing us ten minutes for the interval! Ten minutes! You’ve seen how long the queues are for the ladies’ toilets in a theatre – do the maths, it doesn’t add up. By the time you’ve got out of the auditorium, collected your interval drinks, and done a quick wee, someone’s shouting THREE MINUTES LEFT with apocalyptic urgency. No time for a sip, no chance of a half-time chat. I think that’s rather disrespectful towards the audience. We’re not cattle, you know.

Production photos by Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Review – Absolute Hell, National Theatre at the Lyttelton, 28th April 2018

Absolute HellRodney Ackland isn’t performed much anymore. The only other time I’ve seen one of his plays was the commercially quite successful Before The Party, revived in 1980 at the Apollo, directed by Tom Conti. But the story of how Absolute Hell came into being is one that intrigued me, so I decided it was one I had to see.

absolutehell_1You may know, gentle reader, that I am very interested in the history of theatre censorship – indeed, in this 50th anniversary year since the abolition of stage censorship, I’ll be writing some blog posts in recognition of this significant event later this summer. Ackland wrote the original play, The Pink Room, in 1952, at a time when the Lord Chamberlain’s control over what was presented on stage was in its hey-day. It’s set in a seedy nightclub in Soho just as the Second World War was ending in Europe, and he wanted to portray all the human life and spirit that six years of war had brought out of people; and now that war was over, the people needed to find a new vent and expression to reflect that freedom.

absolutehell_2Ackland wrote a play that he knew would get a licence – but by all accounts, it wasn’t the play he wanted to write. He wanted his characters people to use liberated, foul language. He wanted them to portray all the sexual freedom they wanted to enjoy, gay and straight, inside and outside relationships, legal and illegal. He wanted to show people getting drunk, not just gently tipsy for comedy purposes but rip-roaring, destructive drunk. You sense there was probably no physical boundaries that Ackland’s characters wouldn’t have breached.

absolutehell_16But it was a flop – produced by his friend Terence Rattigan, who never spoke to him again. Disheartened by the experience, Ackland hardly wrote another thing; but after stage censorship was abolished, he revised the play so that it would reflect more what he had originally intended. And when he was an old man, and down on his uppers, the play was rediscovered by the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond and finally became a success. A perfect example of a play written at the wrong time, you could say.

absolutehell_9The main problem with the play – and by the sound of it, it’s always been the case, right since 1952 – is that it is just too long. The original word from the National Theatre was to expect a three hour, forty minutes production, and, with the best will in the world, you can’t even concentrate on Hamlet for that long. Forty minutes have been shed between the early previews and opening night, which makes you a) feel extremely grateful and b) wonder what in the way of narrative has been left out; because the other downside to this play is that not a lot happens. That isn’t a strength, like in Beckett, where it would have been so disappointing for Godot to turn up and take everyone down the pub; in Absolute Hell you always feel like it’s going to break into a strong storyline, but it never ends up going down that path.

absolutehell_4Spoiler alert in this paragraph! Four scenes – the opening and closing times at La Vie en Rose club over a period of five weeks – show manageress Christine slowly losing her hold over the club, from an opening position of running a place that everyone loved but didn’t make much money, to a final scene with a structurally unsafe building that has to be closed down. As La Vie en Rose slowly disintegrates, the fortunes of the Labour Party offices over the road thrive – in what might be seen as some rather heavy-handed symbolism; even their constant typing (which of course in real life they wouldn’t have been able to hear) provides an interruption and irritation to the activities of the club – and, indeed, to the audience. Over those five weeks, the hopes and dreams of La Vie en Rosers are shattered. Writer Hugh Marriner’s last ditch attempt to make a movie gets nowhere. His agent Maurice is exposed as a sham. His boyfriend Nigel leaves him for a woman. His mother finds out he’s not as successful as he pretended. His friend Elizabeth discovers a dear friend has died in the Holocaust. And of course, Christine loses her business and the building becomes derelict.

absolutehell_11As a slice of life snapshot of the summer of 1945, it makes fascinating viewing – you really get a feel for that post-war energy and optimism, but only outside of the club. Inside the club, life is claustrophobic and going nowhere. There are black market etiquettes to observe, and self-important people to be pandered to. You sense that any fun they have on the inside is purely ephemeral. The future is on the outside.

absolutehell_12There’s no denying it – this is an unpleasant play. Binkie Beaumont described it as “a libel on the British people” and I see his point. There are few positive characters in it, vastly outweighed by a variety of self-obsessed, cruel, pig-headed people whom you would run a mile to avoid. But who are we to say how any of us would be if we’d lived through the Second World War like these people? An experience like that would take a massive toll on society, and that, I think, is the prime aim of the play – to show fairly desperate lives and without any real judgment against them.

absolutehell_14Unpleasant it may be, but there is a big upside; this is an extraordinarily good production, primarily because of several really superb performances that keep you hanging on to find out what happens to the characters. Charles Edwards inhabits the character of Hugh Marriner down to his tobacco-stained fingertips. The slight stoop he adopts, the rambling, wheedling manner of speech, the petulance, his general impotence and all his other characteristics are all perfectly captured as he wastes his way through life. It’s an incredible performance. Kate Fleetwood is also brilliant as Christine who manages the club, with a perpetual twinkle in her eye at the sight of any remotely desirable man; she has all the attributes of a tough businesswoman apart from the important one of keeping an eye on the till. Welcoming and indeed almost grovelling to those in influence, whilst dismissing anyone who doesn’t fit her own opinion of a good customer, this is another excellent performance.

absolutehell_15Jonathan Slinger gives a superb performance as the arrogant agent Maurice, steeped in his own self-esteem to the belittling of anyone who gets in his way; Joanne David is delightfully charming as the easily duped and surprisingly refined Mrs Marriner; Martins Imhangbe conveys Sam’s desire to learn and expand his horizons in a terrifically enthusiastic performance; Jenny Galloway invests the critic R B Monody with a wonderfully huffy self-importance; and John Sackville gives a tremendous performance of sheer stiff upper lip as Douglas Eden. But it’s a marvellous ensemble cast of thirty-plus who throw everything they have at making these characters come alive. If it hadn’t been so superbly performed, it would have felt like a much, much longer show. An interesting period piece; but, seen once, you’d never want to see it again.

Production photos by Johan Persson