Finding Love in Tale of Death; Helen Cross Finds That Modern Plays Can Be as 'Classic' as Ancient Greek Drama

Article excerpt

Byline: Helen Cross

'It's often not recognised that this is a love story,' artistic director Neil Sissons says of his latest production, Arthur Miller's great 20th-century classic, Death of A Salesman. 'What tears me apart about this piece is that this is a story about familial love, and yet, because of the society they're all in, that love is entirely dysfunctional.'

Death of A Salesman is something of a first for Sheffield-based Compass Theatre Company, because in their remarkable 20-year history, which has embraced an enormous range of modern and classical work, this is Compass's very first American play.

'It seems a real omission,' Sissons laughs. 'And it seems to me clearly that this is a text of classic status, one of our greatest tragedies. Willy Loman is such an everyman figure, an ordinary man in pursuit of a dream that he doesn't feel he can achieve.'

Sissons believes that Miller's play, written in 1949, resonates with our contemporary insecurities, particularly in an age when many seek a certain lifestyle that most will never achieve, and in times when the digital age is advancing at a dizzying rate.

'People, especially of an older generation, can't quite put their finger on why they feel displaced,' Sissons says. 'The nature of work has changed and in Sheffield, where I live, what used to be a hotbed of mining has been stripped away. A lot of people believed they'd have a job for life if they worked hard and kept their heads down. People expected to be able to bring up their families and have their holidays every year, and now this is all gone completely, to be replaced by nothing.'

In this new production, RSC actor Graham Turner plays Willy Loman.

'You have a choice when looking for a Loman,' Sissons explains. 'You can either go for a big Lear-like character, or you can look for a little man who thinks big.'

Sissons cast Turner for his ability to play both the vulnerability and the heroism of Loman.

'I wanted people to identify with Willy Loman from quite early on. I'd like audiences to feel irritated with Willy sometimes, and frustrated, and yet to empathise. He needs to be bullish, but this bullishness is coming from a position of inferiority.'

Born in Sheffield, Sissons, now 44, trained at Bretton Hall, near Wakefield, and completed a postgraduate qualification at Leeds University. He insists his great passion is classical work. Compass take this term to include great modern plays and have had great successes with the works of Pinter and Beckett as well as Elizabethan texts and Greek drama. While admitting that new work is the lifeblood of the theatre, Sissons believes: 'Classical work offers us the opportunity to connect our history to today. …