Every now and again a director comes along strong on conception for new work and of radical reinvention for old. During the 2010s the biggest claimant to this particular throne was Belgian Ivo Van Hove whose style has often been imitated but never bettered. Although I have not been a particular fan of his later work (click here) his mid-decade production of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge drew universal acclaim from critics and the audiences alike, so much so that when it transferred from the Young Vic to the West End it was still all but impossible to get a ticket – I know because I tried. So, it was with a sense of anticipation that I saw it had become one of the latest additions to the National Theatre At Home platform. I managed to contain my excitement for a couple of weeks as I wanted it to coincide with a) the end of my sixteenth month of consecutive days of reviewing – 486 days – and b) the 700th show I’ve tackled during this time. Well, I couldn’t have picked anything better.
Miller’s mid 1950s play examines the subject of illegal immigration and loyalty and tackles notions of masculinity, all of which are currently hotly topical. Eddie Carbone a longshoreman (dock worker) and his wife Beatrice provide sanctuary for her cousins from Sicily when they enter the US without visas in order to make money to support their family back home. At least that’s Marco’s aim; his younger brother, Rodolpho, seems to have more mixed reasons for being there some of which surround discovering the American Dream. Inevitably he falls for Catherine, Eddie and Beatrice’s 17 year old niece who they have virtually adopted, and she certainly falls for him. Eddie particularly has raised her in more or less strict seclusion from young men. While he tells himself that he has done so to keep the evils of the world at bay it soon becomes evident that he may have his own more personal and disturbing motives, ones that drive the play to an inevitably tragic conclusion.
The cast are superb and don’t put a foot wrong, particularly Mark Strong whose inner torture becomes etched on his face during the second half of the play. He may well be the strongest ever exponent of this role and I don’t say that lightly – I once saw Michael Gambon reduce a whole audience to tears in Alan Ayckbourn’s stunning production at the National. Less of a physical bull than Gambon, Strong lives up to his surname while still revealing the moral turpitude that resides in the man’s soul. It is a performance of subtlety and assurance – it must have been sensational in a live setting. Strong is given consummate support by Nicola Walker as Beatrice who despite her sensible and sensitive approach to life still gets sucked into the maelstrom which Carbone creates. Phoebe Fox’s Catherine is nicely poised between child and adulthood gradually becoming aware of her own sexuality and her uncle’s barely hidden agenda. Of the rest of the cast (and they are comprehensively superbly cast) I would also pick out Michael Gould as the lawyer Alfieri who becomes as passionately embroiled in proceedings as everyone else.
Miller constructed the play with Greek drama in mind and Alfieri as the Chorus to the tragedy. As events unfold there is an inevitability akin to the work of Sophocles or Euripides albeit in a contemporary American setting. Ivo van Hove has emphasised the primal nature of the piece which is uncluttered, totally focused and drives along with the speed of a bullet train for its interval less duration. Designer and long time van Hove collaborator Jan Versweyveld emphasises the power of the language by stripping back to basics. The set is a plain black box stunningly lit (also Versweyveld’s work) which has the audience sat on three sides in a configuration not unlike an amphitheatre. Very few props appear and then only when essential (the scene with holding a chair aloft by one leg is a real moment) and for the most part muted monochrome colours predominate. The director also has his cast barefoot as if to emphasise their raw connection with the earth apart from the moment when Catherine tellingly dons a pair of high heels. Underscored by a menacing and persistent set of sounds – Faure’s requiem and the persistent ticking of a clock – there seems to be an almost religious quality to the production. Again, this may be a nod to the origins of drama in its original form and there is certainly a sense of human sacrifice. The primitive quality of the situation becomes foregrounded in the final moments of the play as van Hove has his characters wrestle in a tangled knot of bodies while blood rains down from above. It is a totally stunning moment which encapsulates the play in one single bold image, and I think Arthur Miller would have approved; I certainly did.
A View From The Bridge is available on National Theatre At Home – click here
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