July 16 NT Live: A View from the Bridge

Phoebe Fox, Mark Strong and Nicola Walker in The National Theatre Live production of "A View From The Bridge"  (photo: Jan Versweyveld)

Phoebe Fox, Mark Strong and Nicola Walker in The National Theatre Live production of “A View From The Bridge” (photo: Jan Versweyveld)

NL Live broadcast of ‘A View From the Bridge’ a persuasive, character-driven drama

Belgian-Dutch director Ivo van Hove discards Arthur Miller’s Italian-American trimmings and focuses squarely on the characters

By Barbara Haas

This year is the centennial of Arthur Miller’s birth, and a stunning production by London’s The Young Vic of his 1955 drama, A View from the Bridge — broadcast to grateful theater-lovers in movie theaters world-wide by NT Live — proves this play to be timeless.

Miller based this work on a real story he picked up on the docks near the Brooklyn Bridge. It centers on the character Eddie Carbone, a hard-working Brooklyn dock worker with a fatal attachment to his teenage niece. The locale of Red Hook today is very much gentrified, but in the post-war period it was a tough, working-class neighborhood with many families of Sicilian origin.

The brilliant Belgian-Dutch director Ivo van Hove opted to ignore Miller’s elaborate stage directions, freeing the play of its Italian-American shtick. On a bare thrust with no decor other than a bench around the periphery and a single door in the rear wall, van Hove forces us to focus on the intense interplay of characters in the psychological drama that unfolds.

Mark Strong’s performance as Eddie Carbone is truly riveting in its intensity, winning him a well-deserved Olivier. For the past 10 years, Strong has been cast in films and on British TV largely in the roles of sinister characters. He portrayal of Eddie is that of a basically good man with little self-awareness who is shocked by his wife’s (superbly played by Nicola Walker, who also won an Olivier) suggestion that his behavior towards his 17 year-old niece (the excellent Phoebe Fox) is inappropriate.

Eddie’s view of the family situation, which is quite plausible, is that he promised his niece’s dying mother that he would care for the girl. He has been good to his word — even paying for her to go to school and learn stenography in the hopes she’ll get a job across the river in Manhattan and meet a better class of people. But now that she wants to quit school and take job at a plumbing firm in a shady section of Brooklyn, Eddie becomes indignant. He’s not being overly possessive, he claims; he’s merely looking out for the girl’s welfare. (True, he affectionately strokes his niece’s bare legs as he talks with his wife, who tries to convince him he needs to let the girl go.)

What was once indignation soon turns to rage when Eddie’s niece begins to show a romantic interest in one of his wife’s cousins — “submarines” (illegal immigrants) from desperately-poor Sicily who have moved in to the apartment.

It’s remarkable to see how much tension Van Hove can build in a fairly innocuous scene. The five family members are sitting far apart, talking about a trip the two cousins took on a fishing boat from Sicily to Africa. The lines are almost funny: “I never thought of sardines as swimming in the ocean,” the wife muses. But van Hove leaves wide gaps of time “between the lines,” allowing the audience to gauge the emotional subtext in their body language.

The sense of impending doom is almost palpable. In the background there’s a dissonant chord — so subliminal it might be mistaken for the theater’s air-conditioning. More audible is the rhythmic beating of what sounds like a stick on a wood block, like the ticking of a clock. Van Hove said in an interview about the play, “It’s like witnessing a car accident that you see a hundred meters before it happens. You just know they’re going to smash.”

For me, the emotional climax of the play comes with the niece’s furious rejection of the man who has cared for her so tenderly but now wants to keep her from marrying the boy she loves. Miller’s play, however, goes beyond that scene — invoking the Sicilian imperative to defend honor and seek revenge. Desperate to rid himself of the cousins, Eddie turns stool pigeon. He makes an anonymous call to the Immigration authorities, thus making himself a pariah in the eyes of the community.

My one quibble with the production is the final scene, where Eddie gets what’s coming to him. Torrents of stage blood are dumped on the tangle of actors frozen in conflict, soaking their clothes and making a visually effective circle of red that engulfs the stage leading the viewer to speculate on what a mess it will be to clean up all that stuff. At the same time, the sound track bursts out with a bass aria from what must have been a requiem mass that remains unidentified in the credits. This was a surprisingly overly-dramatic conclusion to an otherwise stark, brutal rendition of Miller’s play.

The Old Vic production, which received rave reviews in London and was the recipient of several Oliviers, was moved to the Wyndham Theatre in the West End, where the NT Live film was shot. Reportedly, it will be opening with the superb original cast on Broadway, in October.

The play will be coming back just one borough away from Eddie’s home — albeit with a cast from England and a director of a company from Amsterdam.

Details Box:
What: Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, broadcast by NT Live
Who: A production of London’s The Young Vic
Local area showing: Manlius Art Cinema
Date of review: July 16, 2015
Encore performance: Final showing: 11 a.m. Saturday, July 18
Ticket prices: Regular $18, senior $15
Information: ManliusArtCinema.com

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