A View From the Bridge
Ivo van Hove offers a seemingly radical but surprisingly faithful reimagining of an Arthur Miller classic.
"Now we are quite civilized, quite American. We settle for half, and I like it better," says Italian-American lawyer Alfieri in the earliest moments of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge. A critically acclaimed hit on the West End, this revival from London's Young Vic, directed by Ivo van Hove, is now playing Broadway's Lyceum Theatre. Van Hove (who also directed this season's Antigone) questions the durability of that civilization: What social conditions need to exist for us to settle for half? How fragile are they? Certainly audiences will furiously debate these points upon leaving this luminous new production of a dark American tragedy.
Our narrator throughout, Alfieri (a harried and somber Michael Gould) introduces us to Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong), a longshoreman living in Red Hook, Brooklyn, with his wife, Beatrice (Nicola Walker), and orphaned niece, Catherine (Phoebe Fox). When Beatrice's cousins Marco (Michael Zegen) and Rodolpho (Russell Tovey) arrive from Italy, Catherine is immediately smitten by the latter. Eddie becomes increasingly uncomfortable with his cherished niece going around with the young blond immigrant. He could report him for illegal entry into the country, but he knows he would face the wrath of his tight-knit honor-bound Italian-American community (Marco and Rodolpho aren't the only undocumented relatives in Brooklyn). Still, he doesn't want to let Catherine go, pushing this tragedy toward its crimson ablution.
Reading A View From the Bridge, one hears specific dialects and imagines the corresponding speakers clad in suspenders and newsboy caps. A typical line reads, "Y'know Marco, what I don't understand — there's an ocean full of fish and yiz are all starvin'." Yet the Brooklyn accents are toned down here and the Italian ones completely jettisoned (Marco and Rodolpho sound like they grew up in Indiana, not Italy). An D'Huys' costumes are similarly muted: Everyone is shoeless and wearing the same unremarkable earth tones. Tom Gibbons' muscular sound design serves as an ever-present dirge, waxing and waning with the dramatic tension of the play. Everything is staged in a small, unfurnished box surrounded by audience on either side of the stage to create an artificial thrust, leaving the actors uncomfortably exposed.
While this may seem like a bold reimagining of an American classic by a European auteur, it's actually a lot closer to Miller's original intent for the play's 1955 Broadway debut, which was to eschew the typical naturalism and plot-driven suspense of the American theater. "It must be suspenseful because one knew too well how it would come out," Miller writes in his introduction to the 1960 published script. To that end, the initial production stripped away the fat. "Excessive and arbitrary gestures were eliminated; the set itself was shorn of every adornment," he describes. It was a flop, failing to find a wide audience until the subsequent London production by Peter Brook. While employing a much more realistic design and several supernumeraries, it did have one element that decidedly sapped all naturalism from the stage: "The British actors could not produce the Brooklyn argot and had to create one that was never heard on heaven or earth," Miller notes. Certainly, that is as true of the British actors in this production as it was then.
With his specifically nonspecific vision, van Hove successfully borrows elements from both of these productions to get at the heart of Miller's examination of human behavior. This is not just a story of the omertà unique to Italian-American communities in Brooklyn 60 years ago; it's the story of all human societies across all times. Jan Versweyveld's set almost mocks the notion of this play as a museum piece. It looks like a giant display case with living inhabitants. Exhibit: The intimate relationship between sex and power.
"They think just because a girl don't go around with a shawl over her head she ain't strict, y'know? Girl don't have to wear black dress to be strict," Eddie confronts Rodolpho about the notion that women are more chaste in the old country. The script tells us these are Italian-Americans living in Red Hook, but they could just as easily be Pakistani-Brits living in outer London. Many in the audience will also recognize in this play what would today be described as an "honor killing" if it happened among immigrants in a European or American city today. Miller's tale (and the history of organized crime in America) certainly calls into question the popular myth that earlier generations of American immigrants were comprised solely of peaceful assimilationists. In a clear and unsentimental fashion, van Hove presents Miller's case: These are the primal urges that we barely suppress in our everyday lives and then call that civilization.
The aptly named Strong embodies those urges in his earthy, virile portrayal of Eddie. With a shaved head and sinewy build, he looks straight off the waterfront (better than any of the other actors, he also affects an authentic Brooklynese). By contrast, Fox seems small and vulnerable. She endows her performance with the wide-eyed wonder of a little girl, even though she clearly looks like a woman. Tovey, with his boy-band good looks and bleach-blond hair, is certainly not going to protect her from her brutish uncle. This trio encapsulates the entire play in two violent kisses — unquestionably the show's most breathless moments. They're not expression of love, but terrifying assertions of dominance.
Van Hove's neat, spare staging brings perhaps too much order and rationality to a disorderly story of irrational passion. Still, considering these are the memories of our attorney narrator Alfieri, its resemblance to a pristine deposition makes sense. Beyond that, van Hove does Miller a great honor by taking A View from the Bridge out of the museum and asserting it as a living, breathing work capable of being reimagined ad infinitum, like the best plays by Shakespeare.