'A View From the Bridge': Theater Review

A View from the Bridge Still - H 2015
Jan Versweyveld

A View from the Bridge Still - H 2015

An outstanding, strikingly original achievement that evokes the colloquial poetry of Miller’s dialogue

Mark Strong stars in Belgian avant garde director Ivo van Hove’s stripped-down version of the classic 1955 Arthur Miller drama.

The centenary celebration of Arthur Miller's birth kicks off in London's West End with the transfer to the Wyndham Theatre of director Ivo van Hove's ferociously impressive production of A View From the Bridge, starring Mark Strong. Performed barefoot on a minimalist stage that evokes by turns a boxing ring, a sci-fi jail cell and an abattoir's killing room, this represents an intense white-knuckle theatrical experience that sets the bar high for revisionist interpretations of Miller’s mid-century work, first performed in 1955.

For shock value and strangeness, the staging is up there with the Wooster Group’s psychedelic version of The Crucible (titled L.S.D.), from the mid-1980s, although it's less deconstructed. Already buoyed by word-of-mouth raves and early reviews of the sold-out engagement at the Young Vic last spring, the show looks set for a highly successful run and perhaps an eventual transfer across the Atlantic.

Taking as its text the now-standard two-act iteration of the play instead of the one-act verse version which was first performed, van Hove’s production runs straight through without an intermission for two hours, all the better to ratchet up the tension. With its stripped-back set (designed, as are the lights, by Jan Versweyveld), rimmed by sheer glass bricks and period-ambiguous costumes (An D’Huys), the show evokes the bare, forked essence of Greek tragedy.

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It’s an Attic influence, as with so much of Miller’s work, that was always lurking there at the heart of this story about Brooklyn longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Strong), a bullish king in his own castle consumed by passions he can barely articulate. Like Oedipus or Medea, his violent fate is foretold by local lawyer Alfieri (Michael Gould), a narrator-cum-chorus figure who watches from the sidelines as the slow-motion car-crash unfolds onstage.

First glimpsed as a boxy riser ascends, having a real, wet shower onstage with colleague Louis (Richard Hansell), the muscly, bullet-headed Strong projects an impressive virility as Eddie. He’s a middle-aged man still strong enough to lift his 18-year-old niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox) in his arms as she wraps her bare legs around him, a first hint that there’s something “not quite right” about their relationship, to quote his words later in another context. His wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker) further hints something is awry given it’s been months since Eddie performed his conjugal duties with her.

Catherine has been making tentative moves toward independence, supported by Beatrice, by getting a job as a stenographer. But when she strikes up a sketchy romance with Rodolpho (Luke Norris), one of two Italian cousins who have come to stay illegally to seek their fortune, Eddie is manifestly jealous. He convinces himself that his disgruntlement derives from doubts about Rodolpho’s masculinity, given the latter shows a suspicious aptitude for singing and — shock, horror! — cooking. Advised by Alfieri that there’s nothing he can legally do to stop their relationship short of snitching on Rodolpho and his well-liked brother Marco (Emun Elliott) to Immigration, Eddie seethes and sulks until the situation combusts.

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The final conflagration is proper coup de theatre, a well-choreographed huddle of bodies and violence that climaxes with a burst of opera and a rain of blood from the rafters that eerily echoes the introductory bathing scene. But what’s truly impressive about the production is that until the shocking denouement the story has been played out without a single prop, trick or sleight of hand. Instead, it relies entirely on the actors’ skill and a rumbling ominous, barely heard soundtrack; sometimes a looped snatch of strings, sometimes just a Noh-style lone drumbeat.

Denuding the action of any naturalistic stage business sometimes results in odd bits of motiveless blocking as the actors shift about the central bullpen space, but the result makes the dialogue sing like a kind of colloquial poetry. The decision not to have Rodolpho and Marco speak with heavy Italian accents (they sound just as American as the other cast members) seems odd at first given that some of their lines obviously call for it. But it restores to the characters some extra dignity, leveling the playing field between the immigrants and the Brooklynites.

Out of a uniformly tight and on-form ensemble, upcoming ingenue Fox is particularly deserving of praise for her fragile but no-fool Catherine, a child woman with more resources than she lets on. Elliott also impresses, particularly with his workhorse Marco, a proud man humbled by poverty and desperation. But in the end, the aptly named Strong (recently onscreen in The Imitation Game) carries the play on his broad shoulders, bringing warmth and humor to one of Miller’s most morally dubious characters.    

Cast: Mark Strong, Nicola Walker, Phoebe Fox, Emun Elliott, Michael Gould, Richard Hansell, Padraig Lynch, Luke Norris
Director: Ivo van Hove
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Set and lighting designer: Jan Versweyveld
Costume designer: An D'Huys
Sound designer: Tom Gibbons
Dramaturg: Bart van den Eynde
Presented by the Young Vic