Miller’s tales and Nordic gloom

Willy Loman is back in town, still pursuing the American dream, while Ibsen’s unhappy ghosts return too

Theatre
Vigour and pathos: Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” (©Brinkhoff-Moegenburg)

Arthur Miller’s savvy dissections of the awkward intersection of raw, flawed individuals and 20th-century capitalism are back on the London stage with two major productions, conveniently at the Old Vic (All my Sons, until June 8) and Young Vic (Death of a Salesman, which has now transferred to the West End until January 4, 2020) respectively.

Death of a Salesman is, on the face of it, a simple, poignant story of inevitable decline. Willy Loman’s travelling salesman is so wholly in hock to the American dream of material advancement that his sanity and life hang in the balance when its edges crumble and he faces the truth of being a dime a dozen victim of Schumpeterian creative destruction in the selling trade.

In many  ways, Miller is a victim of his own success, with works wilting forlornly on the school syllabus, reduced to quotable chunks and thematic treatments. A deathless line on Willy and Linda Loman’s marriage from one grade-saving website reads, flatly, “Linda understands that Willy has issues.” He most certainly does—and the enchantment and darkness of the play lie in the way that his slipping grasp on reality brings past and present into conflict and blurs identity between the dream and the waking, the living and dead. Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s adept production has a mainly black cast, headed by Wendell Pierce, a towering, large-bellied soul who gives a physical performance of real vigour and pathos.

Pierce is a stalwart of Broadway (where this production is surely headed) and a fine screen actor (Selma, The Wire, and extra points if you spotted him as Meghan Markle’s doting dad in Suits). Sharon D. Clarke as Linda soothes her “troubled” other half with gospel songs and chides her erratic offspring for their inability to indulge a lost soul: “He’s just a little boat, looking for a harbour.”

Refocusing the play on a black family is done with a light but meaningful touch. When Willy confronts his unfeeling boss, Howard, we see the man flinch away from him and Willy instantly abase himself: a gesture which acquires echoes of past oppression, as well as Willy’s desperation. Ben, his fantasy projection of business success, is a white-suited parody of African-American bling, like Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess.

Miller’s original world is, of course, white 1940s Brooklyn, embodied in his unsentimental neighbour Charley (Trevor Cooper). But Willie’s refusal to take the lifeline Charley offers in the form of a menial but steady job becomes more sharply delineated here as a last, misguided act of racial dignity.

In Anna Fleischle’s set, the Loman house is artfully deconstructed to reflect the demise within—doors, window-frames and 1940s light fittings float at angles in the air. It’s all a beautiful piece of theatrecraft, in which scenes of Willy’s memories, enhanced by delusion, are choreographed like slow ballet, under the intense musical direction of Femi Temowo. Arinzé Kene is strident Biff, the son who suffers most from his father’s combination of overweening attention and emotional neglect. Martins Imhangbe plays the feckless Happy, inheriting his father’s philandering streak and defending his tattered dream at the graveside.

The commonplace turmoil of a dissolving family turns through Miller’s deft pen into a story of fallen angels. Where Willy mistakenly conflates affection with success, Charley sees that money is its own measure. The rapping beat of Miller’s prose is still a joy to hear: “Who liked J.P. Morgan? Was he impressive? In a Turkish bath, he’d look like a butcher. But with his pockets on, he was very well liked.”

Sharon D. Clarke makes Linda a less imploring figure than in many productions: a seer in her own house. The famous speech—“I don’t say he’s a great man, but he’s a human being . . . so attention must be finally paid to such a person”—is delivered as a demand, not a plea. Either way, in Miller’s pitiless world, it falls on deaf ears.

Death wishes and the battle of ideologies are at the heart of Rosmersholm, Henrik Ibsen’s intense late play and a summation of many of his preoccupations, from the energy and destructiveness of the radical urge to the incompatibility of romantic longing and political engagement. Ian Rickson’s production at the Duke or York’s theatre is set in one room in Rosmersholm, a grand house of rain-streaked windows and as many unhappy ghosts as you can fit into a provincial Norwegian estate where “the children don’t cry and nobody laughs”.

Johannes Rosmer (a brooding Tom Burke) is a pastor who lives in unconsummated desire with his late wife’s friend Rebecca (Hayley Atwell) until an impending election brings moments of reckoning. Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation bristles with messages about the weaknesses of the electoral process, inequality and the power of the press (the manipulative motivations of newspapers in Rosmersholm make contemporary tabloids look saintly). Giles Terera (Hamilton) is the lofty Kroll, a perpetually cross conservative seeking to dissuade his old friend from defecting to the radical party. Conservatives and radicals alike are flawed in their self-belief. Mortensgaard (Jake Fairbrother) is the reformist newspaper editor, denouncing the sway of “the few at the expense of the many” but cynically quick to ditch Rosmer once he realises that a clergyman who has renounced his faith is a liability to the cause.

Comic relief lurks in the shadows, with the servants watching the ideological tergiversations of their masters with a wary eye. Peter Wight gives us a show-stealing turn as a boozy lefty lecturer who returns to torment his former pupil, only to realise that when his moment arrives he has “absolutely nothing to say”. The watermill wheel, under which Rosmer’s suicidal wife Beata met her death, turns outside the window and we can guess what fate awaits the thwarted near-lovers. Alongside the revelations of incest, deceit, sexual frustration and the strains of progress and reaction, it is the Norwegian option with little hope of success. “No more gloom and doom” was most certainly not the election slogan of Rosmersholm.