Set play

21st September 2001 at 01:00
DEATH OF A SALESMAN. By Arthur Miller. Compass Theatre.

Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, first performed in 1949, is a modern tragedy that deals with the illusions and disillusions of the American Dream.

The play shows the final 24 hours in the life of Willy Loman, a 60-year-old Brooklyn salesman who is too old to travel and who faces the sack. Using his memories and showing his conflicts with his wife, Linda, and sons, Biff and Happy, Miller creates an image of insecurity and self-deception.

In the end, Willy commits suicide so his life insurance will provide for his family's needs. Director Neil Sissons says: "Death of a Salesman redefines our ideas of tragedy. It has all the ingredients: dream and everyday life as well as a mythic quality. It's much more than a naturalistic narrative. Willy is a tragic figure, and Miller's language poeticises his life. He shows us a man in a contemporary situation who aspires to a great role, which he fails to achieve."

The play paints a picture of late-1940s America, but it also alludes to "other worlds: the frontier spirit of Willy's father and his extraordinary Uncle Ben", says Sissons. It's a huge play, in terms of ambition and profundity as well as length, but Sissons - "in awe of the writing"- has not cut the text, and his set design follows Miller's instructions as to the portrayal of the Loman home.

Death of a Salesman is pacy, the director says, with plenty of subtextual material. What fascinates him about the play is "the way it tackles the political through the personal". So Miller's critique of the American Dream "retains its relevance today".

It is also very much about a dysfunctional family, and the way in which Willy wants to live out his dreams through Biff, on whom he puts "all sorts of unrealistic and overburdening expectations".

Sissons says: "It's fascinating, and audiences will feel frustrated and angry about Willy for not dealing with his situation better than he does, although he is funny at times."

The audience, he says, should also feel appalled by Willy and, in the end, desperately sorry for him. "But it would be a mistake to play him as a tragic figure from the outset or to make him simply pathetic or a total bully. He is a complex mix of all those things."

In the final scene, Linda says "We're free" three times. Sissons explains:

"The family is clear of material debt; Willy Loman is free at last of earthly cares; and the family is free of him."

Aleks Sierz

Touring from September 29 to December 8. For information, tel: 0114 275 5328.

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