I’m not sure I’ve ever seen as rigorous, as complete, and as compelling a piece of theatre on a UK stage as Ivo van Hove’s take on Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge. What’s marvellous about the show is that it takes a thoroughly middle European aesthetic and investment in theatricality but allows its British actors to inhabit that conceptual space without entirely giving up the psychological realism in which they are used to working. Van Hove’s show is thus a genuine hybrid — not a British show spruced up with a few Euro-tropes nor an Ostermeierean effort at being as Anglo as possible within a vaguely German aesthetic — but a kind of awe-inspiring blend of two approaches to theatre-making that shouldn’t be able to coexist on the same stage.

Unlike at the Young Vic, in its West End incarnation at the Wyndham’s Theatre the action of A View from the Bridge unfolds on a proscenium stage: there are seats on stage to replicate some of the original staging’s thrust, but for most of the audience, the set is a rectangle, probably a little squatter than at the Young Vic, that doesn’t in fact extend into the auditorium. It thrusts, but only to the edge of the stage. As the play begins, a large grey box sits on that otherwise empty stage (the second empty proscenium space I’ve seen in two days, after Secret Theatre’s Show #7 at the Lyric Hammersmith yesterday — and the second time in as many days that I have been reminded of how shallow those London stages are compared to German theatres). To the sounds of Fauré’s Requiem, the box rises into the fly, as two men are revealed in a wash of orange light and fog, washing their naked torsos in a stream of water cascading from the fly: Mark Strong’s Eddie Carbone and Richard Hansell’s Louis (the sole longshoreman who replaces all of Miller’s bit parts in this version). Other than the water, there is nothing on this set: it is an off-white rectangle fenced in on three sides with low perspex walls deep enough for the actors to sit on; the upstage side is a high grey wall with a single unframed opening in its centre. Van Hove has said that he took Miller’s understanding of the play as a kind of ancient Greek tragedy seriously, and his set certainly reinforces that reading: this might as well be Electra. And from the photos of the original production, it looks as if that upstage wall is a good deal more imposing in the Wyndham’s version of the set than it was in the Young Vic.

And then the actors open their mouths, and I die a little inside. Such a powerful opening image; such an interesting set; such a predictable sound: English actors trying very hard to mimic Sicilian-Americans. Why? There’s nothing in the visuals or the sound design to place the show in Brooklyn. Why fall back on the tried-and-not-so-true acting-by-accent, when in almost all other ways, that false would-be authenticity is clearly superfluous in this production? To the show’s credit, I stopped caring after a while, and only occasionally twitched when an actor slipped back into English tones. But my first reaction, my first fear, was that I was in for that classic move of Anglo-American sort-of directed theatre: a striking opening followed by a return to conventionality as soon as words had to be spoken.

That, thankfully, didn’t happen. Or rather, it wasn’t the only thing that happened. Speech, with some very notable exceptions that I’ll get to, remained the most conventional aspect of the production. But perhaps that isn’t necessarily a bad thing: in fact, in allowing his actors to inhabit a mode of speaking, of living with the text that didn’t force them out of the comfort zone of their craft too much (I’d guess), it seems to me that van Hove opened up possibilities elsewhere. So, yes, if I’d closed my eyes, I might have imagined I was watching a straightforward piece of stage naturalism. But here’s the thing: if van Hove gave his actors a familiar linguistic space to inhabit, he completely took away the physical space in which that kind of speaking usually takes place. The characters talk about setting the table, and making coffee, and having dinner, and making dresses, and putting on records, and what have you — but none of those things exist. There’s not a living room in sight. The only piece of furniture, the chair which Eddie fails and Marco manages to lift by one leg, is brought on for that purpose by the lawyer-and-narrator Alfieri. Without any props to handle, without any table to sit at, the actors are left to prowl the stage, to lie on the perspex shelves, to curl up on the stage floor, to sit against the upstage wall — to put their bodies, that is, on stage, not in the same naturalistic space that their voices seem to want to inhabit. The set thus becomes a shifting metaphor: it is a laboratory of sorts, and we are the observers; it as a kind of terrarium in which these creatures circle each other; it is a cage; it is a tomb, temporarily opened and ultimately shut again, when the grey box descends like the concrete sarcophagus over Chernobyl. (A side note: many a critic has commented on the inexorable drive of Miller’s play towards its horribly foreseeable conclusion, but that’s not really an accurate description of how the play works. Its narrative doesn’t “drive” anywhere — it has already arrived at its conclusion when the play begins. At least one person on stage, Alfieri, already knows the end of the story, and the entire action is lent a retrospective quality by his presence. Jan Versweyveld’s design finds a material shape for this quality of the always-already over: it begins with entombment, opens its sarcophagus to let us watch these dead people reenact their tragedy, and then shuts their tomb again.)

In any case, to come back to those bodies: there is so often a division between “regular” acting and “movement-based” work in Anglophone theatre, sometimes even within the same production (NT Medea, anyone?). This was nothing like that. Here, on this off-white slab of stage, actors doing what for the most part was fairly straightforward psychological realism moved about in a way that was nothing but theatrical — their bodies were doing “theatrical” things, they weren’t behaving quite like bodies behave off-stage, in a living room or a pub or a bedroom, or like actors’ bodies behave in a production that puts detailed or even abstract versions of living rooms, pubs, or bedrooms on stage (and at the actors’ disposal). Everything physical thus felt heightened, off-kilter, slightly and captivatingly at odds with the words and the voices and the apparent psychological grounding of the acting. Mark Strong’s tightly clenched jaw was doing one thing; his body circling the stage like a wild animal was doing something quite different. Similarly, the physical interactions between Strong and Phoebe Fox’s Catherine, right from her first entrance, were completely untempered by any interfering or distracting props or set elements: there was nowhere to go for them but towards each other, nothing to mediate their contact. Catherine jumping up to embrace Eddie, throwing her legs around his midriff, their caresses and physical intimacy — there was a childishness in this on her part, a kind of innocence, but also a level of closeness, of familiarity with touch, of an erotic charge that captured quite precisely the unclear status of their relationship as Miller wrote it (the list of characters does not identify them as uncle and niece, or guardian and ward, and their initial exchange in the text makes it as likely that they are lovers as anything else). As actions, though, they were heightened, deliberately foregrounded, isolated in this empty space — put on a platter for us to observe, and perhaps to feel uneasy about. (Incidentally, the production shots available online completely fail to capture the quality of this show, perhaps necessarily so: the stasis they suggest is never quite achieved; everything seems to be constantly moving, shifting, and whenever there is no movement there is tension. No-one ever just sits down in this show.)

That deliberate use of the actors’ bodies to open up a second level of signification, alongside the quite different register of representation that was mainly established and maintained by their voices and by the text, seems to me what was most remarkable about this production: when I called this a hybrid show earlier, this is what I had in mind. I don’t think you’d often, if ever, hear actors speak the way these performers do on a German stage; but you’d routinely see them use their bodies in similar ways. What van Hove has pulled off, I think, is bringing a quintessentially Central European approach to using the stage and actors’ bodies together with a very Anglo-American approach to using actors’ voices.

And of course, at some points, gloriously, the production does things you rarely see done on UK stages at all, especially with established plays. Like when van Hove stages the transition from Eddie and Beatrice’s apartment to the prison where Marco and Rodolpho are held by having Alfieri (or is it Michael Gould?) shout out Miller’s stage direction in total: “There is a pause of darkness before the lights rise, on the reception room of a prison,” before instantly slipping back into the action of the play with a line of dialogue: “I’m waiting, Marco, what do you say?” It’s a kind of Nicolas Stemann moment, letting the stage reality be transformed by the words of a stage direction rather than by the actions the direction calls for (the light doesn’t change at all). In a way, in its treatment of the text, it’s a little sudden, a clear departure from how voices have functioned up to that point; but in its total theatricality, it is entirely of a piece with the rest of the production. Then there is the fantastic moment earlier in the play, after Eddie’s first visit to Alfieri, when van Hove slows everything down to a crawl, and there is hardly any movement anymore. The characters sit around on stage and on the perspex walls, staring at each other, tensions building, with endless pauses between banal sentences — all of which felt a lot like a moment from one of Jürgen Gosch’s Chekhov productions to me. In Miller, that scene is filled with business: clearing the table, flipping through a magazine, reading a letter and a newspaper, getting up, sitting down, exiting and re-entering. In this production, everything is stripped down to bodies fixed in space, lobbing lines at each other in slow motion (or rather, discreet moments of naturalistically delivered lines with endless, non-naturalistic silences in between — as if the aesthetics of the show switched back and forth between realism and a more fractured mode of representation).

And then there are the visual tableaux. There’s the opening scene. There’s the brilliant staging of the chair-lifting duel, which goes from deliberate theatricality (when Alfieri brings on the chair) to a heightened kind of naturalism (when Eddie tries to lift the chair, and when Marco does lift it) back to total theatricality, when Marco holds the chair aloft above his head, holds it and holds it, as Fauré’s score swells and surges, the light fades up to a bright white, and Marco starts to look like a bizarre version of the Statue of Liberty. And there’s the ending. [Spoiler alert, I suppose.] In Miller, it’s a knife fight between two guys, with people trying to separate them. And then Eddie dies in Beatrice’s arms. In van Hove’s version, it’s never just two people. It’s Eddie and Marco, surrounded by everyone else, Rodolpho holding his brother back, the women, Louis, and Alfieri holding Eddie back, until the two clusters meet — and when they do, and entangle, the waterworks start up again, except this time it’s blood, an endless downpour of blood (which verbally had echoed through the play more and more insistently in the moments leading up to the catastrophe). And it goes on and on, as the tangle of bodies on stage staggers and shifts, dripping red, their clothes soaked through, until finally Eddie and Beatrice emerge out of the cluster of people as a secular pieta drenched in blood. Productions of Miller’s play are sometimes faulted for focussing too much on Eddie Carbone’s individual tragedy, at the expense of its impact on the community. Not so here: it may be Eddie who dies, but everyone ends up covered in blood. The sarcophagus opens on an image of cleansing, but it closes on a stained, torn-apart world. The narrative frame of the play suggests closure, but the stage image that remains, after the unusually enthusiastic and prolonged curtain call, when the house lights come up, is of a once-clinical set now awash with bubbling blood, with the sarcophagus open again but the people inside it gone. In a literal sense, catharsis is precisely what the show doesn’t offer: nothing gets cleansed; at best, it gets boxed up.

(I realize I haven’t really said much about what I think van Hove was trying to say or do, and probably more than anyone cares to read about how I think he goes about saying or doing it. As for the “what,” it seems to me that the show is all about sex — the sexual attraction between Eddie and Catherine [and perhaps, or perhaps not, vice versa], between Catherine and Rodolpho, between Eddie and Rodolpho, and only in mummified form between Eddie and Beatrice; and the erotic play between actors and audience. The former isn’t saying much: that is sort of what the play is about, right? The latter is a straight path back to the “how.”)

One Response to A View from the Bridge (Arthur Miller; dir. Ivo van Hove) Young Vic / Wyndham’s, Feb. 2015

  1. […] the Young Vic; as a consequence, it felt like a show that met its performers half-way, resulting in an exceptional blend of continental and British performance […]

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