It’s hard to imagine a more powerful – or more iconoclastic – production of Arthur Miller’s shattering meditation on family relationships gone bad and immigrants trying to make good in 1950s New York. But director Ivo van Hove comes close.
I use the word iconoclastic because more conventional productions evoke that specific 1950s setting, although they are using the specific to also evoke the general. In van Hove’s stripped down production – on designer Jan Versweyveld’s rectangular arena – the events of the play are as if under a microscope, focused by Michael Gould’s fine portrayal of lawyer/Greek Chorus Alfieri so that we the audience may observe them with growing incredulity and horror. There is an eerie timeless quality to this setting, which throws into relief the contemporary resonances of the illegal immigrants’ plight and desperation all too clearly.
Italian-American made good protagonist, Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong), reluctantly takes in his wife Beatrice’s (Nicola Walker) relatives from Sicily. Working men have been driven to leave their wives and families for years at a time because of a lack of work in the depression on their island. These illegal immigrants live with the fear of being discovered, though "shopping" your countrymen to the police is likely to bring down a worse fate on the whistle-blower. The search for a better life, the willingness to work all hours, to face up to separation from loved ones and to the pain of longing for them, applies to the Jews who made their painful way from the pogroms and persecution of Europe and to successive generations of economic migrants from Africa and Asia to Europe and the Americas as much as to these Italians.
As it becomes apparent that the close affectionate relationship between Eddie and Catherine (Phoebe Fox), the niece he has raised as his daughter after his wife’s sister’s death is much too close for comfort on his part, and his affection becomes aggressively possessive and even abusive. Again the play becomes chillingly timely – and timeless. His not so latent homophobia, accusing the newly-arrived Rodolpho (Luke Norris) of being a pretty-boy homosexual is certainly of its time, yet still contemporary.
Timeless though the play and production may be, the actors manage to vividly evoke the 1950s, even in the plainest of costumes (by An d’Huys) and barefoot too. You can visualise Strong’s powerful Eddie working on the docks as a longshoreman, then at home as a terrifyingly insistent and intense character. He does not care who sympathises with him; yet the audience watches his self-destruction with horrified incredulity, channelled by Alfieri’s own impotence to reason with this man so out of control.
Catherine is performed vibrantly by Fox, who sets the stage aglow; first leaping into her uncle’s arms, shining with excitement about her first job, and then glowering with determination and anger as he places obstacles in her path to marriage with her young immigrant lover. Equally Walker as Beatrice conveys vividly and heartbreakingly her disappointment and discomfiture in the face of her now sexless marriage and the reason for her husband’s neglect, but also the magnificent warmth of a Sicilian matriarch, with so much to offer her husband and niece – and indeed her needy newly-arrived relatives.
Norris is perfectly cast as the pretty blonde Rodolpho, his different and delicate good looks and sensitivity making it plausible not only that he is the object of Catherine’s affections but also Eddie’s hatred. Emun Elliott’s dark, more conventionally Mediterranean Marco is touching in his longing for home and family and determination to make good so far away from them and equally plausible in his own fiery reaction to Eddie’s actions.
My only cavil with the power and intensity of this two-hour (no interval) play is in the insistent soundtrack throughout and a visceral coup de theatre at the end. Neither increase the power or intensity as both are fuelled by the extraordinary ensemble acting acting out Miller’s shattering story. I’d like to think the audience, who rose to their feet almost as one at the end, would have given them a standing ovation even without this final stage effect.
By Judi Herman, who saw the production at the Young Vic before it transferred to the West End.
The View from the Bridge runs until 11 April. 7.45pm, 2.45pm (Wed/Sat only). £19.50-£62.50. Wyndhams Theatre, Charing Cross Rd, WC2H 0DA; 084 4482 5120. www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk