Theatre in London

Hope and hurt

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 07.06.2019

Arthur Miller’s plays are famous for deconstructing key myths such as Puritan morality, going out west or the ideology of the self-made man. Not surprisingly, he has often been dubbed “the conscience of America”. Now Marianne Elliott stages Death of a Salesman, which is seen by many as his most intriguing play. Beautifully balanced, oscillating between flashbacks, dream encounters and a harsh present, the plot drives towards tragedy. It is moral without ever becoming moralising. This production, though, comes with a difference since it stages the Lomans as an African American family.

Willy, a travelling salesman, is 63 and feels like a complete failure. He is “tired to the death” after a life of hard work and has become a burden to his employer. Still, he must keep earning money in order to pay for various insurance policies and for the constant repairs both the family fridge and the car seem to need. Linda, his wife, sees what is happening but cannot get through to him. Their sons, Biff and Happy, are lost in their own ways, while Willy’s guilt at never having been a role model for them adds to his pain and to their confusion. As the play moves backwards and forwards in time, as it dips into Willy’s dreams and into his encounters on the road, we sense his complete isolation. “Riding on a smile and a shoeshine” is no longer an option. Once he starts seeing himself through the eyes of others, all hope vanishes.

Wendell Pierce is a superb Willy, while Sharon D. Clarke is a very moving loyal wife who desperately tries to keep the family together, though it is quite clear that neither Biff (Arinzé Kene), the once adored sports star, nor Happy (Martins Imhangbe), an inveterate ladies’ man, will ever live up to anyone’s expectations. The music, which is a mix of gospel, jazz and blues, adds a fresh note to the 1949 play. Atmospheres are conjured up only to be swiftly dropped when yet another crisis looms. The stage designed by Anna Fleischle has window frames and lights hang from the ceiling and furniture appear out of nowhere, as if by magic.

Small Island is an altogether different experience. Andrea Levy’s 533-page-long novel, which draws a gripping portrait of the Windrush generation, has been turned into a three-hour-long play by Helen Edmundson. Rufus Norris directs. It is the kind of production only the National Theatre can do – with a 40-person strong cast appearing on the huge Olivier stage. Youngish men and women came to the mother country from the West Indies to seek a better future for themselves only to routinely face racism and exploitation. Levy creates a mix of drama and humour, of cultural misunderstandings and rather naïve expectations. We might think that we have moved on from the late 1940s but then the recent scandal around the way the Home Office has been treating the Windrush generation over the years reveals a much darker reality.

Colourful and heartfelt, Small Island offers an epic adaptation and truly moving stories about World War II and its aftermath. It suggests that individuals can make a huge difference to the lives of others and celebrates the fight put up by Queenie (a stunning Aisling Loftus), a Lincolnshire farmer’s daughter who marries a London bank clerk and turns into one of the rare landladies ready to take in coloured lodgers. Her warmth and determination seem to extend to anyone in need. Coping with a shell-shocked father-in-law is a duty she takes in her stride, and, even when she faces a difficult personal choice at the very end of the play, she puts the interests of others first.

Meanwhile, in Jamaica Hortense (Leah Harvey), an ambitious schoolteacher, decides to join Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr), her rather hapless husband, in England. As it happens, he is one of Queenie’s lodgers, so the various strands and back stories are drawn together. Small Island truly enriches the theatre landscape with its pin-sharp characters and beautifully staged encounters. A slice of history examined from multiple perspectives. Again, the stage design needs mentioning as Katrina Lindsay makes enticing use of projections on a huge screen: a tropical storm, Jamaican street scenes, 1940s newsreels and those famous Windrush pictures literally become part of the action. All in all, a stunning treat.

Death of a Salesman, Young Vic, SE1, to July 13; Small Island, National Theatre, SE1, now booking to July 31, coming to Utopia cinema on June 27 as part of NTLive

Janine Goedert
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