Saturday 19th April 2014, matinée
Watching the Young Vic’s new production of Arthur Millers ‘A View from the Bridge’ made us feel as though we were witnessing a battle between a great playwright and a director who appears to want to undermine his writing at every turn and replace it with ‘spectacle’. Thankfully Arthur Miller came out on top in our book, despite a number of irritating attempts to ‘improve’ his work.
The plot is deceptively simple – Eddie and Beatrice Carbone have brought up her sister’s child, Catherine, as their only child, and as she turns 18, Eddie must face the fact that she is growing up and one day he will have to let her go. Meanwhile, two of Beatrice’s cousins have come over from Italy as illegal workers and are staying in the house. When Catherine falls for the younger one, trouble ensues and we can guess that things are not going to end well, as Eddie realises there are some situations he cannot control.
Unusually for the Young Vic, the stage was surrounded by a shed-like box, which piqued our curiosity, although not in a good way. As the house lights went down, the box was raised slowly to reveal what appeared to be a giant shower tray, with two very clean looking men having a shower with their trousers on. Rather oddly, they then proceeded to change their clothes, while another character tried to inconspicuously dry the floor (this is meant to be a shower, remember) and on top of all this, Michael Gould as the narrator had to try to attract and retain our attention as he delivered the introductory narration for the play, battling against the noise of the water and pointless visual distractions behind him. We cannot see why this charade was so necessary, but it wouldn’t have been so bad if the rest of the action had not become subservient to the set. All the actors continued barefoot – was this an artistic decision or a late realisation that the floor would get marked by shoes? Given that we are supposed to be in a downtrodden area of Brooklyn, a set which dominates the action with its sterility seems perverse to say the least.
The setting takes away everything which makes Arthur Miller such a great playwright – all sense of place, distinctions between public and private space, any sense of time and political context. Apart from the pristine floor, the playing area is enclosed on three sides by a low perspex balcony which reminded us of a penthouse apartment. Perhaps Van Hove was looking for something neutral, but sadly the empty space proves to be a vacuum into which any dramatic tension and texture are sucked. The removal of dramatic tension is ‘replaced’ in this production with some very annoying and unnecessary theatrical devices, not least the painfully funereal pace. Dialogue is marked out with a slow drum beat or underscored with church music, or interrupted with static tableaux. The frustrating thing about all this is that everything you need is in the text. If only the actors could be allowed free reign to play it, we might have been able to engage emotionally. As it was we felt as though we were watching a butterfly which had been nailed to a wall.
To pick an example which may seem trivial, the costumes for most of the characters are fairly nondescript, fitting quite happily into modern times, or into the 1950s, when the play is set. Catherine, the young niece, however, appears in a skirt which would have made even sixties’ swingers blush, and in the fifties would not even be considered outdoor wear. The point is that when Eddie tells Catherine her skirt is too short, it is meant to show how conservative and protective he is. In this production, he is merely pointing out the obvious. For the plot to work, Catherine needs to be absolutely ordinary and in tune with her generation, but here she is dressed like a bizarre child-woman.
We were slightly surprised and quite pleased when we heard that Mark Strong had been cast, after we booked tickets. He has an undeniable stage presence, and an intensity which convinces us that his family are right to be scared of him. But we couldn’t help feeling that ultimately he had been miscast. He can portray the physicality and stubbornness of the character, but we don’t get much complexity. He is too smooth, and doesn’t look or act as though he has done twenty years of back-breaking physical labour. We don’t get enough of the broken man behind the bravado. As his wife Beatrice, Nicola Walker is a constant, steely presence, the only character who can see the necessity for her niece to get away and secure her independence. It is not easy being the voice of reason amidst the testosterone fueled drama, and she does it with quiet dignity. As Catherine, Phoebe Fox captures the naivety of the character well and portrays the raw pain of having to both face the truth and act on it more quickly than she is ready for.
Ivo Van Hove doesn’t seem to trust the playwright or the audience to get the subtleties of the play, without constantly trying to give us more. But sometimes less is more. This production makes us think of David Mamet’s wise words about theatre – that artists need to learn to ‘get out of their own way’. We suspect that Van Hove would disagree with him.