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 – The Government Inspector, Warwick Arts Centre, 28th May 2011

Warwick Arts CentreIt’s been a sin of omission on my part that I have never visited the Warwick Arts Centre before last Saturday. Its reputation as a home for challenging theatre was made early on in its life in the 1970s, so I’m delighted to have finally found it and will be checking religiously for new shows to see there. I recommend it – the sightlines are excellent, the sound is clear and the seats are comfortable. The ice-creams were tasty but I wasn’t that keen on the cafeteria aspect of the bar areas. It’s definitely more functional than sophisticated.

I also have a great fondness for the Young Vic, where I saw some pretty sensational stuff in the 1970s and early 80s, and so it was with eagerness that I booked for us to see “The Government Inspector”, being a Warwick Arts Centre – Young Vic co-production.

Government Inspector Gogol’s 1836 play is a satire on corruption and greed. It’s a terribly simple plot. An inspector is to arrive incognito in some backwater Russian town and the mayor and notables are terrified that their corrupt inefficiencies will get discovered. They assume a new man in town is the inspector and so, as they are used to receiving bribes, they give him bribes to smooth the waters. Of course, he isn’t the inspector but a waster with a gambling addict, so he is pleased to receive their money and take advantage of the townswomen to boot. At the end, he leaves scot-free with all the cash, and the locals, much poorer, still await the horror of the real government inspection.

I’ve not seen or read this play before, but I understand it that it is often presented with an eye to the surreal. That’s certainly the tack taken by director Richard Jones in what I felt was a pretty woeful production.

Let’s start with the set. Stage right you have the Mayor’s living room, taking up the majority of the usable area. Stage left you have another room, at times the mayor’s wife’s boudoir, their guest room, the room at the inn, or an interrogation room-cum-torture chamber. Fair enough. My opinon is, having established those boundaries, stick with it. But for the final scene the mayor’s front room just extends and takes over the other stage area, oblivious of its previous segregation and because of the other area’s different flooring and decoration, it just looks and feels wrong. On another occasion, when Khlestakov, the non-inspector, was sleeping on the floor in the guest room area, his feet distinctly broke through the imaginary wall and ended up in the mayor’s parlour area. Sloppy, I thought; no real respect given to the staging.

Secondly, the vision of the play is inconsistent regarding its era. Whilst the majority of the time it appears to be fully 1830s as far as costume, scenery and props are concerned, in the final scene, all the guests have helium balloons. Not sure that’s entirely right.

And then you have the stage effects. In order (presumably) to give an impression of the mayor’s tormented mind, they project the moving word “incognito” on to the walls in a spooky sort of way. And rats appear at the door and along the picture rail too. The trouble is the rats are laughable. They look for all the world like the ones that they didn’t make earlier on Blue Peter. Visually, it came across as very cheap and amateur. There’s one scene change moment when – for some reason – all the stagehands and actors who are moving scenery come on wearing bird masks and other surreal costumes. There was no artistry to those costumes; they look like they were just chucked on higgledy-piggledy. They were tawdry and it was embarrassing. Plus it was accompanied by a ridiculously loud, off-putting, indescribable and headache-inducing sound effect.

Oh my God those sound effects. I can only guess they were meant to enhance certain aspects of the play for the hard of understanding. When Khlestakov is sitting on one chair and the mayor’s daughter is on another, he draws the chair close to her as a visual sign of pursuing her. She pulls her chair away from him. He follows her again, she pulls away again, and so on. This takes place on carpet. Yet the scene is “improved” by having a chair scraping sound effect whenever the chairs move. It makes the whole thing so unsubtle. At other times, there is music in the background which ends with an old-fashioned “stylus being dragged across a record” sound effect. Not quite sure what it was meant to signify, but by the sixth or seventh time I’d heard it I wanted to smash the record over the director’s head. It was an overdose of inanity.

Julian BarrattOn the whole the performances themselves were not bad. Julian Barratt plays the Mayor, and as I have never seen The Mighty Boosh, I had no preconceived ideas about what he would be like. On the whole I enjoyed his performance; I liked his facial expressions, and I thought he conveyed the mayor’s tortured angst pretty well. My main concern was that he spoke in a monotone nearly all the time. I wouldn’t say he actually sounded monotonous, but he kept exactly the same vocal cadences for when he was talking to his family, buttering up the soi-disant inspector, dealing with the other worthies of the town or interrogating the dissident shopkeeper. It lacked variation.

Doon MacKichanDoon Mackichan, for whom I have a lot of time , played his wife. A naturally comic personality, she was great vamping up to the inspector and trying to out-sexy her daughter in his affections. For me the stage certainly brightened up whenever she appeared.Kyle Soller Kyle Soller was Khlestakov; we saw him as the eponymous Talented Mr Rigby last year, where I didn’t entirely believe his charisma, but this time I found him more convincing. Basically Khlestakov is a show-off fop, camping it up around the stage and taking advantage of everyone, and he did it fine.

I can’t help but think, though, that instead of this downright weird presentation, it would have been much more telling if it had been played more straight and serious. I would have thought you could really demonstrate the scale of the corruption and foolishness of the townspeople and make Khlestakov more of a threatening and manipulative presence if they’d taken away all the gimmicks and left the text. What are now mere cartoon characters could become real people instead. This would also have meant the impact of the final realisation by the townspeople that they had been fooled would have been more devastating. As it is, the ending has all the force of being kicked in the shins by a dormouse.

There was a theme of repetition too: characters repeating the same short speeches ad nauseam to very little dramatic effect. God it was tedious. No wonder it felt like the show runs for several hours. I think I should stop now before I think of other aspects of the show that irritated me.

It’s an excellent play, but it’s a production that tries too hard to be clever, relies too heavily on artificial effects and offers too much caricature instead of characterisation to warrant the ticket price, I’m sorry to say.