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Review: Arthur Miller's dying 'Salesman' is reborn in London
Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” is on view at the Piccadilly Theater,

by Ben Brantley

LONDON (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- The tired old man has had an unexpected transfusion. And he has seldom seemed more alive — or more doomed.

What’s most surprising about Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s beautiful revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which I mercifully caught near the end of its West End run here at the Piccadilly Theater, is how vital it is. As Willy Loman, the title character of this epochal 1949 drama, lives out his last, despondent days, what has often felt like a plodding walk to the grave in previous incarnations becomes a propulsive — and compulsively watchable — dance of death.

Portrayed by a splendid Wendell Pierce (“The Wire” and “Treme” on television), Willy lacks the stooped shoulders and slumped back with which he is traditionally associated. (It’s the posture immortalized in the book cover for the original script.)

This electrically alert and eager Willy nearly always stands ramrod tall in this production, which originated at the Young Vic Theater, though you sense it’s an effort. When we first see him, newly returned to his Brooklyn home from an aborted road trip, he bends to put down the sample case he holds in each hand. And for a painful second, he registers how much it hurts him to straighten up again.

He has shown a sign of weakness. And that is something he can never afford to do, not even with his unflinchingly supportive wife, Linda (the formidable Sharon D. Clarke).

This is partly because Willy is 60, working in a Darwinian business that belongs to the young and the fit. But in this version, he has another, heavier handicap: Willy is a black man in a nation where white is the color of success.

While he has absorbed and abides by the mythology and rules of the American dream of self-advancement, there’s a part of Willy that worries the odds are fatally stacked against him. The adrenaline that courses through Pierce’s performance never lets up, even — no especially — when Willy is recalling a supposedly happier, easier past. It’s no wonder that this overcharged defense system is finally starting to short circuit.

Elliott is fast proving herself to be one of the great transformative alchemists of classic plays — shifting perspectives in ways that make us see the familiar with virgin eyes. She does so without altering the innate substance of such works, carefully achieving her alterations from within.

Her Tony Award-winning interpretation of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” seen on Broadway in 2018, presented a New York at the height of the AIDS crisis as a land of endless night. More radically, her London-born, Broadway-bound revival of the 1970 Stephen Sondheim musical “Company” transformed the unhappily swinging single at its center from a man into a woman.

That gender reversal required little textual surgery other than changes of pronouns. And the “Salesman” that Elliott has devised with Cromwell leaves the original script intact. But there’s much more than colorblind casting going on here.

“Salesman” has always been a study in cancerous denial, an interior portrait of a man long out of touch with who he is. (Miller had at first thought of calling his play “The Inside of His Head.”) This production finds the desperate exertion in such denial, the paradoxical energy in the exhaustion of playing a losing game for too many seasons.

When Willy summons idealized memories of earlier days with his family — centered on his sons, the adored, firstborn Biff and the younger, attention-starved Happy (Sope Dirisu and Natey Jones, both first-rate) — these visions take on the stylized artificiality of period advertisements or burlesque sketches, in which cherished watchwords of uplift are not merely spoken but sometimes sung.

The idylls are punctuated by the discordant sounds of a tape rewinding at hyper-speed. But there’s sweet music in Willy’s head, too. The show begins (and, less judiciously, ends) with a gospel hymn promising blessed rest and relief. And sometimes, though it unnerves him, Willy hears the wandering melody of the flute his father played (rendered here as a clarinet).

That father materializes briefly as a gentle, spectral frontiersman from an earlier age. (It feels poetically appropriate that this apparition is portrayed by the show’s composer and musical director, Femi Temowo.)

Willy doesn’t talk much about his dad, except to say that he moved the family a lot. And we are vouchsafed a fleeting, unsettling image that explains why, of a white man with a rifle trained on the back of the music-playing father. It is an apparition that comes and goes like lightning, and you may even wonder if your eyes deceived you.

Such moments are part of an inspired, continuing pattern in this production, wherein ugly truths flare up only to be extinguished. The same rhythms animate Pierce’s performance. Willy explodes without warning when his next-door neighbor, Charley (Trevor Cooper), asks him, “When you are you going to grow up, boy?” (That “boy” is one of the few interpolations in the script.)

Or watch how Willy’s fedora morphs from a boulevardier’s proudly brandished accessory to something like a humbly proffered beggar’s hat. That’s in the heartbreaking scene when Willy, begging his young boss (Matthew Seadon-Young) not to fire him, softly grabs the shoulder of the other man, who recoils as if he had been stung.

Such moments are never lingered over. And if this “Salesman” had been retooled to be solely about race, it would shrink and oversimplify Miller’s play. Instead, race expands and exacerbates Willy’s suppressed fears that the world regards him as outcast, a loser, a clown.

The tightly wired intensity of Pierce’s performance lends a new ferocity to the dysfunction of the Loman family dynamic. The scenes between Willy and Biff (whom Dirisu endows with full Method angst) have the wrenching, visceral charge of full Oedipal tragedy. And the magnificent Clarke (who arrives on Broadway later this season in the title role of “Caroline, or Change”) transforms a character often portrayed as a whimpering doormat into a strong, self-aware woman who knows the choices she has made and is determined to honor them.

But there’s not a performance here that doesn’t serve the production’s governing vision of Willy’s sense of life as he most longs — and fears — it to be. Even the usually throwaway part of a woman with whom Willy has a one-night stand assumes a magnified, haunting menace as embodied by Victoria Hamilton-Barritt.

The life summoned here is a rapidly tarnishing illusion, built on crumbling values that Willy has fought against himself to believe in. That little house in Brooklyn, which he has worked so hard to maintain and pay off, is rendered in Anna Fleischle’s set (lighted by Aideen Malone) with ephemeral-looking furniture, doors and windows all suspended on wires. Everything can disappear in a twinkling.

When a singer in a restaurant scene is heard crooning, “They can’t take that away from that me,” those hopeful, wistful lyrics sound unbearably cruel. In this “Salesman,” when Willy, in a rare moment of insight, says he feels “kind of temporary,” the terror that he ultimately owns nothing — not even his own identity — has never felt so profound.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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