Ivo Van Hove’s production of Arthur Miller’s classic GCSE set-text, sorry, play, is strong. Mark Strong. Sometimes, from the first beats of an album, the first frames of a film or first breaths of theatre, you know you are in for something special. This version of A View From The Bridge is not one of those.
In fact, it opens in fairly unassuming fashion with the neon-lit shower of a longshoreman. Little do we know what is in store for the next two hours. Though, of course, this being such a familiar tale, the plot is utterly predetermined and the snares of fate wrapped around each of the characters before the curtain rises.
Ivo Van Hove expresses his primary aim to be finding the essential nature of his subject. Here, he has emphasised the story of Italian immigrants. It is a story set to resonate deeply with the current climate as refugees flock to our shores, sadly reminiscent of the ‘fishing boats’ which Marco and Rodolpho describe in their bucolic, impoverished Sicilian existence. They tell the tale of a two-day trip to Africa that echoes prophetically with the current refugee crisis. But theirs is a reverse trip and they do not seek African shores to better their lives.
Instead, they opt for the new world and smuggle themselves into Brooklyn by boat to meet up with cousins already American citizens. Sound familiar? Well, the only thing that separates yesterday’s Marco and Rodolpho from today’s Mohammed and Emir is their race, colour and religion. The small matter of our own Western whiteness and the belief that the profits of geography should not be distributed to those unfortunate enough to be born in Eritrea or Somalia, Afghanistan or Syria.
White Catholic Italians, Southern Europeans…I guess they would be fine to enter our green and pleasant lands, if, like the Belgians in 1940, they found themselves evacuating their homeland in droves in order to beat death. But today, they would not. The Eastern bloc ‘migrant workers’ of are the Italians of our day. And the Romanians, Bulgarians and Pols are scapegoated as the scourge for our state. Economic migration? Shouldn’t exist if you ask me. After all, why should an unemployed labourer come to a country with a surfeit of such employment that nobody wants to do?
If we are going to endorse a globalised economy, a libertarian plutocracy, we might as well do it properly. All these issues are deftly handled in A View From The Bridge, explored in the subtext as we delve into the character and motivation of each person Miller presents to us. They are all fully-formed individuals, capable of anything, but transformed into the futility of nihilism by the tragic story told by our narrator, the lawyer, Alfieri.
Miller showcases his indebtedness to the Greek tragic genre by maintaining the presence of Alfieri onstage at all times as a complicit silent witness to the events. He is at once chorus, narrator and messenger, with an omniscience of the action that bridges on the divine. Nonetheless, he is unable to influence the end product of the play despite his potent position. It is a deft performance from Michael Gould which somehow does not detract from the main sequences centre stage, despite his constant presence and prescience.
The pivot of the play are those “tunnels” of eyes that belong to Strong’s Eddie Carbone. Sometimes an actor is just born to play a part. It seems so for Strong. He has the physicality. The stage presence of unfettered masculinity pours unaffectedly as he stands there. He has the range of emotions, from unbridled rage to tender joy that mark Eddie as one of Miller’s most human characters. It is a mature, classy face, with enough chiselled, wizened experience to fulfil the depth of the role. The accent, he utters perfectly. The Brooklyn drawl that sets him up for a brawl.
Eddie is not one of Miller’s most sympathetic characters. As a result, it falls to the actor to achieve the humanity for which Miller strives. Eddie is egotistical and overtly besotted with his adopted daughter, Catherine, to a Freudian extent. He neglects his seemingly naïve, yet not so innocent wife, Beatrice, underplayed as a perfect foil to Strong by the accomplished actress of stage and screen, Nicola Walker. Strong has no need for the supporting cast. It is a one-man monolith of a performance from which everything else originates. Apart from the stark, sanitised set.
The ghostly quality and claustrophobia of the performance is aided by the modernist, dry, echo chamber of a set. White, with a bit of grey, it represents a prison cell in heaven or a bright lit room in an intensive care unit. A kind of limbo in which the characters exist to fulfil their own destiny. Jan Versweyveld’s setting is the sterile environment so perfect to realise this unique and innovative take on the classic. If you think you know the play too well, the Dutch designer and director have realised their collective imagination to rework and reemphasise the play for the twenty first century.
In its simplicity of structure, the set evokes the torture chamber of Orwell’s 1984. Here it is not incarcerated, but apparently free humans, that exist within the bounds of Miller’s tightest of sequences. The best scene is the most awkward of conversations as the leads all sit around the room, Eddie on his lonesome stage right, Rodolpho too close to Catherine stage left, Marco slotted into the corner and Beatrice on the step. The staccato percussion of the soundtrack throws a jerky sporadic rhythm across the room as the conversation jerks horribly between long stretches of silence. It is at once both hilarious, with Miller’s scything wit brought out at its best and horrific. The scene never seems to reach a climax, but remains agonisingly fixed in time and place. Meanwhile, Eddie just stares flat at rogue Rodolpho, ignoring his every word, but seeing his every move.
The risk of Van Hove’s essentialist methodology is losing the nuance of a play’s depth, its hidden meanings lurking profitably beneath the surface of the bare dialogue. But the dutchman has successfully concocted a pure shot of real Miller to wake us from our slumber and see the tragedy of the common man. Catharsis, check.