You know that old joke about a play being so good, not even a gifted director could ruin it? Welcome to Headlong’s A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller, a co-production with Octagon Theatre, Bolton, Rose Theatre, Kingston and Chichester, where it’s currently playing at the Festival Theatre until 28th October. Miller’s grittily realistic play concerns New York longshoreman Eddie Carbone, a tough but kind-hearted cookie who loves and cares for his niece Catherine to the point of idolising her, trying to discourage her from taking a job because he can’t fact the fact that she’s growing up. He’s married to the long suffering Beatrice, whose two cousins Marco and Rodolfo have illegally immigrated from Italy and are living a quiet (ish), secret (ish) existence in Eddie’s apartment until they can procure either American citizenship or enough money to return home to Italy and raise a family there.
Marco is the kind of man that Eddie can admire; hard-working, silent, a provider for his family. Rodolfo, on the other hand, isn’t; and when Rodolfo and Catherine start to have a relationship, Eddie’s having none of it. And what’s the worst thing you could do to immigrants that you have helped enter the country illegally? Eddie’s fate is pure Greek tragedy; his downfall coming as a result of his own blind actions and misplaced love. One of the most powerful plays written in the 20th century, it’s insightful, emotional, agonising, heartbreaking and totally believable.
Consequently, it’s strong enough to withstand the stresses imposed on it by Holly Race Roughan’s highly stylised, fanciful production. Out goes Eddie and Beatrice’s usual basic accommodation – Miller’s stage directions describe it as a worker’s flat – clean, sparse, homely – to be replaced by a garish red neon sign that simply reads Red Hook – the name of the migrant enclave where all the Italian longshoremen lived; just in case you were to forget where the play was located, I guess. Out goes Eddie’s favourite old rocking chair and in comes a swing seat, suspended from way up high, as if the family were recreating their own version of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s masterpiece.
In the bizarrest of all updatings, Elijah Holloway’s Louis frequently transforms himself into a ballet dancer, pirouetting nicely en pointe, drifting in and out of the action; but to no discernable purpose whatsoever. Six of us spent the weekend racking our brains trying to work out the intent behind the presence of the dancer; but nothing we thought of made sense. No criticism of Mr Holloway, but whenever he turned up I found it most rewarding simply to look away from him.
I’m normally flexible where it comes to gender-blindness in casting, but in this instance, the decision to cast Nancy Crane as Alfieri is, I think, a mistake. Again, nothing against Ms Crane, who delivers a strong performance as the lawyer, always on stage, acting the role of the Greek Chorus, constantly commenting on the action and the inevitability of its outcome. However, there’s no way that a man like Eddie Carbone would ever confide in a woman, lawyer or otherwise. The whole essence of the character is that he has a very set (old-fashioned) opinion about traditional gender roles. Men work; women keep house. Men socialise outside work; women look after babies. Eddie would never trust a woman with his deepest thoughts. He doesn’t even trust his wife or niece with those thoughts, let alone a female lawyer.
It also removes one of Miller’s carefully constructed male role-models. So much of the play is concerned with what it is to be a man; be it an unskilled labourer using his strength, or a creative artist using his talent, or an intelligent learned man using his brain, these are all ways in which a man can earn a living and provide for his family. Of course, this is not the case today, where making a living is equally applicable to both men and women. But in 1956 things were different.
Despite all these disruptions, antagonisms and distractions, Miller’s play still shines through and, in the second act particularly, arrests the audience with its riveting dialogue, growing suspense and undercurrent of violence. Much of this success is also due to the superb performances by all the members of the cast. Rachelle Diedericks’ Catherine quickly grows from a wide-eyed innocent girl into an independent young woman who knows her own mind and will not be diverted from her own wishes. Tommy Sim’aan is excellent as Marco, conciliatory at first as he tries to influence his brother into more discreet behaviour, but growing in anger as Eddie’s disrespect increases, until his fury is uncontainable. Luke Newberry gives a relatively subtle performance as Rodolfo, which keeps the audience guessing as to his true motivations for his relationship with Catherine. Nancy Crane makes for a calm and empathetic Alfieri, and there is good support from Elijah Holloway and Lamin Touray in the minor roles.
Jonathan Slinger gives a very fine performance as Eddie, his mental instability gradually growing as he can no longer keep his feelings of jealousy surrounding Catherine and scorn for Rodolfo to himself. It’s an excellent portrayal of a classic tragic hero, on an immutable course towards self-destruction. But perhaps the best performance of all is by Kirsty Bushell as Beatrice, agonisingly torn between her love for Eddie and being horrified at his behaviour, trying to do her best for everyone, no matter what it takes, and no matter what cost to herself.
A View from the Bridge has it all. The meaning of respect, loyalty, trust, and tradition; strength and bravery, assertion in one’s own beliefs; and love, in all its aspects and incarnations. What it doesn’t need are ballet dancers and swings.
Production photos by The Other Richard