A View From The Bridge
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Ivo Van Hove
Design & Light by Jan Versweyveld
The Young Vic, London
Tuesday 6th May 2014
A View From The Bridge has a special place for me. At university I had the magnificent role of Immigration Officer, which had a few lines, one of which was ‘Andiamo!’ I probably milked it and repeated it. There are two immigration officers in the script, though just the one in this version. Then when we were doing weekly shows for English Language students, the school brochure advertised rehearsed costumed readings of classics once a month, and A View From The Bridge was in the brochure as one of the six, so we had to do it twice a year. My boss used to play the longshoreman blue collar uncle, Eddie Carbone, as he had done for many years (which is why it was in the brochure) and he was word perfect so didn’t need the book either, which showed the rest of us up. The set was always elaborate, and one of Karen’s first roles with our company was Catherine, the niece. On the night, my boss had a sudden flash of inspiration and held a large pair of scissors (used for Rodolpho’s dress making skills) to her throat, something we had not rehearsed and it was the first time she had met him. She was still shaking with fear when the curtain went down (metaphorically, we used lights not curtains). Although our basic team of four was set, it was enlarged for the play readings, and a piece of fun was inviting a new member of staff to try out for future Wednesday night glory by playing Rudolpho. We never explained in advance (and it never happened in rehearsal) that Eddie would be well into the role, and the dramatic kiss on the mouth would be real. Very real. Anyway, I did Marco twice a year for ages, being cast on my beefy size and ability to look stolid and expressionless and do an Italian accent, which I did better than the rest of the cast did American. This was not hard. Marco was great to play because a lot of the time sits at the table looking tense, then has short lines. Which meant the book was on the table inside an Italian newspaper (we were good on detail) so I did not appear to be using the book either.
The Young Vic Theatre
We took any opportunity we could to see the play and I guess I saw professional productions three times in the 70s and 80s. It’s an intrinsically great play. But then I left it for at least 25 years, probably as I spent more time recording in British and American English, I was becoming hyper-sensitive to British actors doing (or failing to do) American accents.
The set: lighted pit and edge frame
So it’s been a long time … First surprise is the minimalist set. I’d always seen it as Kitchen Sink USA with a realistic apartment. When you go in to the Young Vic, a large grey rectangular box totally obscures the thrust stage. It lifts to reveal a plain beige (later white) rectangle with a black box frame around it. On the non thrust end is a plain black wall with a door, and a step. That’s it. It opens with Eddie and Louie showering after work. Alfieri the lawyer walks round the outside doing his introductory talk, with his face mainly outside the lighted area, which is just the rectangle. Reviews say mesmerizing, shattering, and it is. It’s two hours long, a good twenty minutes longer than normal, and there’s no interval, even though it was written in two acts (after its initial one act version). Eddie’s first long speech was done seated on the edge of the “pit” the frame creates, with his back to our quadrant of the theatre, ignoring the normal way of using a thrust stage, which is to move about to share out the poor angles. Everyone acts barefoot while within the area. When Alfieri enters it, he removes his shoes.
Plus points? Style. Concept. Fantastic performances. All the cast work with absolute integrity. Mark Strong is a hugely powerful Eddie and you can’t take your eyes off him. Phoebe Fox is just right for Catherine, as being petite helps the impression that she’s young. Michael Gould is much more emotional than most Alfieri’s (the part is normally regretful acceptance), though he is often working outside decently lighted areas. Nicola Walker is Beatrice, Eddie’s long suffering wife. Luke Norris as Rodolpho and Emun Elliot as Marco give powerful performances, but … see below.
Yes, it’s amazing. Write that large, but I am going to carp. Quite a lot. First, and this really annoyed me, is that Marco & Rudolpho step off the boat as illegal immigrants speaking with fluent American accents. THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO BE ITALIANS on their first visit to the USA, right off the boat. WOPS … i.e. WithOut PaperS. Later Marco starts to sound Italian, because that’s what Arthur Miller wrote for the part … enigmatic lines. Simple English. Stolid. Rodolpho too usually sounds much more floridly Italian than here, and he should. I didn’t have a problem with British actors doing American though, and that’s a major plus. I see the programme lists UK Casting Director and US Casting Director so I assume the production concept and set design are off to the USA (Brooklyn BAM?). They will presumably recast, but then the accents will have to be the right part of Brooklyn, not ‘New York’ nor just “American.”
Can you lift it from here? Marco’s show of strength
I know you shouldn’t cast to physique, but you have a tall strong Eddie, and a tiny slight Catherine. Perfect. But Marco is described as like his giant of a father, strong as a bull, able to lift more coffee sacks than anyone. Emun Elliot looked and acted strong and powerful especially in the chair lifting section with his veins standing out and holding the pose a long long time, until Alfieri took the chair away. But Emun Elliot was shorter than Eddie, and not “short and square” like some powerful shorter guys either. He looked smaller all over, though his dramatic intensity compensated. Good Italian hair though – slicked down. Rodolpho had bulging arm muscles, clearly Luke Norris works out, but Rodolpho should be slighter for me, slender, basically looking somewhat gay as perceived by a blinkered homophobic 1955 longshoreman. OK, many gays work out obsessively and treasure their build, but Rodolpho is seen by Eddie as effeminate. The lines are all there. He really didn’t look effeminate at all. Plain costumes don’t help. Normally, as Eddie complains, Rodolpho is wasting his money on clothes and records. A new fancy shirt or trousers halfway through helps.
Next one, Italian names surely end in vowel sounds. The name was Car-Bone here to rhyme with carphone. It’s always been Car-Bone-Ay in other productions. Like minestrone, and Ennio Morricone. OK, it shows Eddie has Americanized himself. I can justify it, but it jarred. I could see Eddie saying Car-Bone at a pinch, but the Italians and Mr Alfieri would be definitely saying Car-Bone-Ay. Maybe Mr Alfieri did earlier as I hadn’t noticed the jarring till later.
(ADDED: In my relentless pursuit of accuracy, I dined at Carbone, the magnificent Italian-American restaurant in Greenwich Village, New York, opened just over a year ago. I asked. They pronounce it Car-bone as in carphone. They explained that Car-bone-ay was “The Godfather I” while Car-bone was “The Godfather 2.” Second generation immigrants Americanized. Then to add to the synchronicity, we took a taxi back to our Brooklyn hotel, a few hundred yards away from Eddie’s Red Hook. I wonder if the production was influenced by the restaurant.)
Next there was music behind most of the play, for much more of the time than usual. Impressive music it was too. This sometimes interfered with clarity. A major effect was a tap tap of a drum like a dripping tap. At one point it was used for a very long time behind the scene and had the effect of a dripping tap on me … I didn’t know if I could take any more of it. My teeth were on edge. I would have confessed to the Great Train Robbery just to stop the noise. OK, it really adds to the tension of the scene. The scene is the long one with everyone, and done with long, long pauses between the lines while the tip tap drip drop plip plop drum ploughs on. A powerful effect (and hence some of the extended running time).
Catherine & Eddie. Too much love for the niece …
From the outset Catherine, in a wispy thin miniskirt, greets her uncle by leaping up and scissoring her bare legs round his middle. This happens every time. We know that he has an unacknowledged sexual thing for her from the first second. I think that should be our growing realization over the first 15 or 20 minutes … we should be going along with Bea’s feeling that this relationship has crossed a line and is now beyond natural. Here it was instant. But what Mark Strong did brilliantly is Eddie’s refusal to accept himself what everyone else can see. Eddie’s view (from the bridge) is that he cares because he has invested so much toil and care in bringing her up. He has over-invested, and over-identified with Catherine as a way out of their life into something better. Eddie is appalled that Bea and Alfieri can think it sexual.
Rodolpho, Katherine, Eddie. The boxing lesson. Marco seated on floor.
The ending is innovative, bloody and very different (no spoilers) and that grey rectangular box descends and covers it all. Psycho has a lot to answer for … and drenching actors from overhead showers is becoming a 2010s cliché too. It happens far too often. Here it was a major part of the concept indeed, but I really feel sorry for the cast every time. Major plus, it felt like the 95, 100 minutes the play normally runs to, not the 120 minutes as it was here. That’s a sign of how gripping it is. It is a major version of A View From The Bridge, without question. But I still feel a thrust stage should not utilise fixed position long speeches with the back of the speaker’s head as all that a large section can see – and that happened several times with different actors and for too long. Sometimes those basic direction and blocking rules about not having your back to the audience do apply. Also Alfieri needs a bit more light spilling outside the rectangle as he walks around it. He has important lines. His face was in deep shadow for much of it. The music was intrusive.
It’s a timely revival, concerning Immigration from the illegal immigrants point of view, though that’s the story frame or situation rather than the story itself. The stark minimal set is an effort to drag the story out of its time perhaps, and make it more universal. There is an issue there. Italian post-war emigration was massive, hence all those pizzerias and trattorias and gelato places in the USA, England, Germany, and espresso coffee and scooters and Fiat 500s and Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida and Pasolini and narrow lapels and ties and winklepickers… the period of the late 50s and early 60s was all things Italian, and most of it was good, the shoes being an exception. But that wave of emigration was limited to a short post-war era. In the USA it built on earlier late 19th century / early 20th century immigration, which meant established Italian-American communities with citizenship and family ties. That Italian emigration impetus is long gone. However, having said that, there was a section in The Sopranos, where Tony Soprano shows similar 2000s resentment towards related arrivals from the old country. On the contrary, Italy now suffers from unstoppable Balkan and African immigration itself due to the impossibility of policing its long coasts and islands. The View From The Bridge timeframe has the shadowy Mafiosi in the background arranging illegal immigration and requiring payment afterwards (which is why Eddie is in trouble at the end)… and that hasn’t changed, though the nationality of the gangsters and the immigrants certainly has. Because so much is Italian-specific, I don’t think you can drag the story much past the early 60s … in The Sopranos reprise there’s not the “without papers” aspect at all. You have to be true to that 50s / 60s time period that’s glued to the play and let the audience draw the modern parallels. So I guess the five star reviews applaud a different and powerful interpretation. I’ll remove half of one star for the stuff I carped about.
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