When I made my directorial debut in 2015 it was with a revival of John Retallack’s refugee drama Hannah And Hanna, produced in partnership with CultureClash Theatre.
First performed in 2001, the play tells the story of Kosovan refugee Hanna, who finds herself in Margate at a moment of heightened racism and xenophobia, but who ultimately forges a problematic but deep friendship with the white girlfriend of the leader of the local branch of the National Front.
For our production, staged 14 years later, we presented the original text of the play but we changed one thing.
We recast British Hannah as a black teenager. For us, presenting the play in 2015, the face of racism in England had become more complicated and less distinct.
Now, a second generation Afro-Caribbean girl could feel as much ownership of England, and as ‘under threat of invasion’ as the more traditionally recognised white British fascist.
The reason the switch worked is that while, on the surface, the play is about two girls in Margate at the height of the late 20th century immigration crisis, it is actually about broader and more general issues of prejudice, loyalty and friendship, and the change made a comment about the evolving nature
Making a change to a play like this only works if the events of the narrative are underpinned by universal human experiences.
It worked for Hannah and Hanna, and now, playing in the West End following an acclaimed run at the Young Vic, it is working for Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman.
In this case, directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, the period is unchanged, but Willy Loman and his family are now African American.
Again, the text is intact, but the revised casting sets Mr Loman’s plight in a different context.
Not only is he the broken salesman pursuing the American Dream even when the prospect of making it is long gone, but now he is also the discarded black salesman in a corporate world run by white America.
Wendell Pierce is dynamic in the role of the increasingly troubled salesman, letting us glimpse the energy and sense of fun that surely led his wife to fall for him (not always obvious in productions of the play), and Sharon D. Clarke is astonishingly moving as his wife, determined to protect him even as his world unravels around him.
Sope Dirisu plays his son Biff, whose own life has derailed and whose adoration of his father is tempered by a long-held secret, and Natey Jones is Happy, who still believes in the dream that his father has vainly pursued throughout his life.
All four give mesmerising performances, but Clarke comes out on top.
Linda Loman’s strength, her devotion and her determination to see them free and clear of debt despite her husband’s failing career, are heart-breaking to watch.
Miller’s play is that rare thing – a masterpiece that lives up to the term – but I didn’t think I would ever see it reimagined with as much credibility and with its heart so intact.
This production really is unmissable.
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