There’s a danger sometimes in waiting until the end of the run to see a show that everyone has praised to the skies and back again. When you go in after hearing an almost neverending chorus of people telling you it’s stunning/shattering/brilliant/revelatory/whatever, your expectations are going to be high. Perhaps unfeasibly high.
It’s not that this a bad revival. At least, not precisely. It’s lovingly directed, sometimes stunning to look at, has a superb cast, and Femi Temowo’s music is beautifully performed. And yet somehow, for me, it never quite catches fire. It’s a doggedly earnest effort, ploddingly intelligent, and it would be both more interesting and more moving if the director and several of the actors didn’t go to such drearily strenuous lengths to underline Every. Single. Piece. Of. Subtext. in red pen.
There’s no doubt Wendell Pierce is a very, very good actor. The trouble is, his Willy Loman (do I really have to outline the plot?) is so clearly heading for a breakdown right from the top of his opening scene that there’s nowhere left for him to go except way over the top, so that the climactic confrontation between Willy and his two shiftless sons is mostly about volume rather than emotion. Possibly it’s a performance that will work better once the production has transferred to a larger space; in the Young Vic, from where I was sitting, less would have been much more.
That goes, too, for Femi Temowo’s music – lovely to listen to, beautifully played, but a little bit too obvious in the way it telegraphs the play’s emotional content. Instead of allowing the audience to find their own emotional response to the material – and this can be an extremely moving play – directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell seem desperate to do all OUR work for us, using light cues (I mean, beyond the ones in the script), music cues, set changes and other theatrical tricks to let us know in no uncertain terms what we should be feeling in any given moment. In a play which is all about subtext, that’s not an approach that is going to pay dividends.
The glorious exception: Sharon D. Clarke’s exceptional Linda Loman. Somehow, in the middle of a production that seems desperate to keep hitting us over the head, Clarke’s performance is a model of restraint. Of course that speech is delivered flawlessly, but she’s remarkable throughout, and that’s largely because in the middle of a stage full of Really Big Performances, Clarke knows how to be still. So, to be fair, does Matthew Seadon-Young as Howard, Willy’s boss – but that’s a much smaller role. His two scenes are terrific, though.
The biggest problem, though, is simply that there’s more than a whiff of smugness surrounding the show: everyone here – with the exception of Clarke and Seadon-Young, who not coincidentally are the best things in it – very clearly knows how brilliant they are, and I can’t shake the impression that the play might have been better served by people who approached it with a little more humility. Linda Loman says “attention must be paid” in one scene. This production’s directors seem hellbent on saying it subliminally about every two-and-a-half minutes, and in doing so they take the play’s (many) subtleties and more or less announce them via a megaphone. It’s all very clever, and all very reverent, and there’s no question that making the Lomans a black middle-class family with a white neighbour and – for Willy – a white boss – adds fascinating layers to the play, but the overall effect, I’m afraid, is more than a little stifling. Elliott and Cromwell seem more interested in telling the audience to, in effect, shut up and eat their bran flakes than in allowing us to feel for Miller’s characters for ourselves. It’s never less than engaging – but if you’re expecting to be moved, manage your expectations.