Posts

,

Death of a Salesman, Sharon D Clarke: “There is space for us to tell the stories that we want to tell – not just the stories we feel we have to tell.”

Sharon D. Clarke
Sharon D. Clarke hasn’t changed. That is, admittedly, something of a loaded statement. Obviously, she has changed. This year cemented her as UK theatre’s biggest superstar. Whether it is musical or play she always delivers the goods.

Earlier this year, Sharon received acclaim for her Linda Loman in Marianne Elliott’s and Miranda Cromwell’s sell-out revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic. This Loman family is black, which casts their drudgery in pre-civil rights American in a whole different light. She stars alongside Wendell Pierce as husband Willy Loman.

Her CV is prolific on stage and screen; with appearances on Doctor Who and Holby City as well as stints in The Lion King (as Rafiki) and We Will Rock You (originating the role of Killer Queen). Furthermore, in 2014 she won an Olivier Award for James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner at the National Theatre. In 2017 she picked up an MBE.

And earlier this year, she won one of the most coveted Oliviers: Best Actress in a Musical for playing the lead in the glorious revival of Tony Kushner’s civil rights musical Caroline, or Change – first at Chichester, Hampstead and then in the West End. She also found time to star in Blues in the Night at Kiln Theatre.

Sharon D Clarke, Blues in the Night –photo by Matt Humphrey

Sharon D Clarke, Blues in the Night –photo by Matt Humphrey

We are talking on the phone, Sharon is in her dressing room at the Piccadily Theatre, London where she is embarking on a 10-week run. The first question I ask, though, is a reference to her recent appearance in Elton John biopic Rocketman:

What were you like as a child, Sharon? She bursts out laughing. “As a child?” Clarke says slowly. “Chatty. I was a very sociable child. My school report actually said: ‘would do better if talked less.’ I was the child that other people came to with their problems; I was the girl in the loos telling the other girls that they were actually having a period. Problem solver, outspoken and lively.”

Clarke brings bluesy, fragile heartbreak to her Linda. How would she describe the character? “Linda’s all-consuming love for her husband is her biggest weakness and her biggest strength. From a woman’s point of view, she’s dealing with three very immature men: Willy and her two sons Biff and Happy. She’s also fighting to keep her family together.”

“These are the types of roles that I would have never had been seen for historically”, she insists. “To be able to get inside this play; a seminal piece of American literature, is a privilege. The way I see it is that Lynda is the glue within the family, her drive is supporting her husband because he’s not able to support himself emotionally and her concern for him keeps her going. She’s terrified for him every time he leaves the house. But I would say that she’s a very strong, ferociously loyal and loving wife and mother,” Clarke says.

Death of a Salesman in the West End Rehearsals - Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Death of a Salesman in the West End Rehearsals – Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

I ask what question people ask her most when she talks about this Death of a Salesman, produced by Elliott & Harper, Cindy Tolan and The Young Vic. “I would say nearly everyone asks me what difference does it make through the eyes of an African American family? How does it change the show? In answer to that question, it absolutely heightens and deepens the words,” she explains. “There are more things that leap out of Miller’s text that make more sense. For example when Willy demands his bit on the side to go back into the bathroom because it would have been illegal for a black man to have an affair with a white woman, Or when you’re boss who is calling you kid it takes on a different connotation – it is all representative of the glass ceiling – you look at this Loman family and from the outside they would have been doing well as they have a mortgage, a car and Willy has a job. But it would never go further as the world was never ready for that at that time.”

Death of a Salesman in the West End Rehearsals - Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Death of a Salesman in the West End Rehearsals – Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

I ask Sharon what it was like having two directors. Clarke considers this for a moment. “I wasn’t sure at first. But I found it to be a treat and a dream,” she begins. “Marianne and Miranda work on different aspects of the show and actually that works really well. For them, it’s not a new collaboration and they already have history (both worked closely on last year’s gender-swapped Company) and a unique shorthand. Sometimes they’ll finish each other’s sentences. As an actor you know that you are in safe hands with those women.”

We talk about theatre-making as a constant quest. Has Salesman taken her further along the path she needed to go? “I think every show does that. There is a whole new generation seeing this production, which is vital. It’s about finding more in your craft and discovering something that stretched you and challenges you so that you’re not jaded, or bitter and twisted,” Clarke says.

Caroline, Or Change has announced it will transfer to Broadway next year, with Clarke reprising her role. I ask her if she is excited to be making her Broadway debut. “Of course, I am,” she gasps. “Wow, that is such a wonderful opportunity and such a joy. I’m going with a show and it will be my fourth time doing it. So, it doesn’t necessarily allow me to be as nervous as I could have been,” she explains. “But I’m under this woman’s skin. I feel that I know Caroline and can do the character and that story complete justice.”

Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, or Change

Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, or Change

“What is especially exciting is Tony Kushner’s actual maid, whom Caroline is based on, is still alive and she might be able to come to see the show. That is giving me goose bumps right now just talking about it.”

Clarke is aware how rare it is for a black woman, like herself to be in a position of power in the industry, and she is determined to use her influence to tell stories that might not otherwise be heard. “I’ve been very lucky,” she says. “For me, as a performer it’s vital that we hold a mirror up to society and continue to tell these stories and there is space for us to tell the stories that we want to tell – not the stories we feel we have to tell.”

With that, it’s time for Sharon to clear off and perform for a sold-out audience at the Piccadilly. Before she goes, I ask how she stays positive in a turbulent world. “Let’s live the best lives that we can live,” Sharon decides. “Since the EU Referendum, with the ongoing uncertainty with Brexit, and especially what’s happening across the pond with the other guy…” she continues, “mankind needs to wake up. We seem to have forgotten that we’re all here sharing this planet.”

Death of a Salesman Trailer

Death of a Salesman is at the Piccadilly Theatre, London until 4 January 2020