After a two week road trip in the American South in seemed apt (ish) to see two plays by US writers in my first week back. Apt-ish because the New York and Boston where the two plays I saw, Arthur Miller’s classic A View from the Bridge and David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2011 Good People, are respectively set are as far removed from Tennessee and Louisiana as London is from the Sahara.
But these punchy plays both contain universal themes that transcend state lines, international border and eras. In fact, despite the fifty odd years that separate the two plays, there are obvious – and in many cases depressing – similarities between the two; both are set in tough working-class urban neighbourhoods and both examine truth, choice, consequence and the complexities of right and wrong.
The Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge was the first post-holiday theatre trip. I have never been a huge Miller fan, his world have always felt too male-focused to resonate with me, the egos of the male characters dominate the page and the stage without – to my mind at least – the romanticism and the narcissistic female to blunt the machismo that Tennessee Williams had.
To further consolidate my opinion, I saw a production of A View from the Bridge a few years ago that was so stagnant that the ending came as a relief and served to put me off Miller for life. That is until I read reviews of the Young Vic’s production that were so glowing that Ivo van Hove’s production sounded life changing…
And it’s certainly changed my mind about Miller. A View from the Bridge is a physically and emotionally tough play and this production doesn’t flinch from the rawness in Miller’s script, an attitude reflected in the physiques of the three male leads. The production pulsates with masochismo, lust and a fateful sense of doom, amplified by the soothing, yet soaring Fauré’s Requiem that accompanies the more dramatic moments, while the stiller family face-offs are set to a hypnotic tick-tock which I couldn’t work out helped build the tension or distract from it.
Leading a superb cast is Mark Strong who is no stranger to playing the bad guy. But Eddie Carbone is a far more complex character than a black and white badie. He’s a deluded, ego-driven man blinded by self-importance and an obsession with his niece which sends him into a spiralling circle of madness. Eddie is an insufferable twit, of course, but he’s no pantomime villain, there’s a vulnerability and desperation to him that an actor needs to unearth from underneath the character’s blind fury, which Strong does with fearsome power.
During a performance, I like to watch, if I’m near enough to see their faces, the actors that aren’t at that moment speaking as they can often reveal more about that character in those quiet moments than when they’re in the spotlight. I could go back a second time and watch Strong the entire time – not to take anything away from the rest of the cast – but he glowers with an intensity that is intimidating, even on the back row. He fully deserves the line that lawyer and narrator Alfieri (Michael Gould) ascribes to him “but I will never forget how dark the room became when he looked at me; his eyes were like tunnels”.
Of course Eddie’s actions are legally right, but morally they are very suspect and ultimately devastating. I was hugely depressed by the thought that the immigration theme that this play – written in 1955 – tackles is still an issue. The line where Rodolfo (played brilliantly by Luke Norris), defending himself from Phoebe Fox’s childlike, but ferocious Catherine’s accusations that he wants to marry her purely for her papers dismisses the idea of America as some kind of Utopia; “It’s (America) so wonderful? “I want to be an American so I can work, that is the only wonder here – work!” resonates far too much in a world where UKIP exist.
As Ruth in Spooks Nicola Walker was called on to wobble her bottom lip many times while also maintaining a steeling reserve. As Beatrice, Eddie’s wife, she’s required to be the opposite – Bea is ostensibly tough, berating her niece for her innocence and naivety, when in reality Catherine is the strong one, the one who doesn’t let Eddie grind her down.
Van Hove’s slick direction injected some adrenaline into those final, frantic minutes, rather than shifting the action from the street to the police station and back again, he keeps the actors in the same place and has Alfieri read the stage directions so the play reaches a crescendo with a tension that’s almost physically uncomfortable.
And the ending, one most of the audience knows is coming, is brutal and moving and more than contributes to the idea that now would be a good time to buy shares in fake blood; London’s theatres are awash with it.
by Suzanne Elliott
Catch A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic until 7 June .