Young Vic, London
My expectations were high before going to see Ivo Van Hove’s production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (1956). I had glanced at the four and five star notices and read numerous comments from critics and normal folk about it being one of the best productions of the play. Plus, I’d read an interview with its star, Mark Strong, who said that they’d changed the style of the play and that it was going to be ‘stark and bare and brutal’ (Barnett, 2014). They’re words that are no doubt meant to excite you about a piece of theatre, but I couldn’t help but be a bit concerned that I wouldn’t be able to appreciate its differences having not seen the play before. Deciding to read about other productions, I learnt about the much-lauded Alan Ayckbourn production from 1987, a version I’d heard people mythologise over, and how it blended the personal with the social and featured a staggering performance from Michael Gambon. I also read criticism of Lindsay Posner’s 2009 production that it focused more on Eddie’s individual tragedy indicated in their home dominating the set. Coming out of this production however, I felt that it explored both the personal and wider aspects of the play in an extremely innovative way.
Entering the Young Vic auditorium for the first time, the thrust stage is curtained by a black box. ‘Isn’t it narrow’, we thought, wondering how big a playing area this Greek tragedy would be played on. The rows of slightly uncomfortable benches and trendy foyer just set back from the cultural South Bank cemented that this is going to be a piece of vital theatre, a View from the Bridge with a singular vision and maybe a smidgen of pretension.
Then when the black box rises, a brilliantly lit white stage is revealed with Perspex edges and a small entrance at the back. In this arena, the dockworker Eddie Carbone betrays his wife’s illegal immigrant cousins by exposing them to the authorities after his young niece Catherine falls in love with one of them. It’s an act of jealousy that his wife silently watches, unable to persuade him against her. But by turning them in, Eddie is not just failing his family by putting his own interests before his niece’s but also failing his community by going against an unspoken word of honour and loyalty in this largely Italian-American community.
Even though the production’s aesthetics are laid bare, it’s not a distraction; you can still feel the poverty and hope that the Brooklyn surroundings offer within the realms of the play. Overall, Van Hove’s and Jan Versweyveld’s setting is successful in that it is timeless and may be naked of period detail but not one completely set in an empty space void from an exterior world. The stripped down setting therefore puts your focus on the family drama aspect of the play but its bare aesthetics is a step in the right direction to removing the play from its historical context and making it completely universal. But in Van Hove’s production, quite rightly so, I still imagined the populous immigrant community of Miller’s original setting, thus allowing the production to effectively explore both the social as well as the individual tragedy of Eddie’s betrayal.
Van Hove achieves powerful effects with visual metaphors, especially the startling coup of his closing image: as the characters group together for the fatal denouement, blood rains from above for a lengthy enough time for it to leave you cold. Visceral is word often used in theatre but as the pungent smell reaches each row, you become engrossed in the actors covered in this literal bloodbath. It was enough to even stun a school group in the audience. A subtler moment is where Marco challenges Eddie to raise a chair with a single hand. When the lodger lifts it high above his head (emotively underscored by Tom Gibbon’s soaring choral music) he’s proven the more dominant one. Furthermore, Van Hove’s production may be sparse in its set, but it doesn’t skimp in terms of its tension, a metal shutter slamming down enough to make you jump and the beating of a pulse creating an ominous atmosphere.
Mark Strong is a convincing stevedore, with the vigour of a hard-working family man but the unhealthy weakness for obsessing over Catherine, untroubled at picking her up in seemingly promiscuous ways. Michael Gould has a strong presence as the omniscient lawyer, demonstrating a sense a sadness of what’s to come and stepping outside the arena, as if detached from the action like the audience. Phoebe Fox is playful and dangerously flirtatious as Catherine and Nicola Walker is excellent as the devastating, subdued Beatrice who can only watch her husband trapped by his passion for his niece.
It’s a production that may take the detail of its historical context away but its stripping back allows for the production to concentrate on its key issues and the sensations brought about by them. But I still am curious as to know if a more conventional production could better convey an emotional potency that Miller’s plays so often do.
A View from the Bridge is looking to transfer to the Wyndham’s Theatre in early 2015.