Belgian director Ivo van Hove (hailing of course from the Dutch side of the country), is a hit or miss fellow. His stock-in-trade is avant garde deconstruction and reassembly of classics. In my earliest exposure to him, I found the pretension to be so extreme as to resemble nothing so much as late 60s phonybaloney counterculture revisionism. But as I’ve seen more and more, what emerges is what I'll only semi-glibly call a brilliant madman searching for a core truth that transcends realism or even traditional notions of presentationalism. I might not have had the insight to characterize him thus, save for having just worked with another brilliant madman. The particulars aren’t important, but the category revelation is. And the best way I can profile that category is to say it describes someone whose quest to fulfill a vision has almost no coherent boundary between dramatizing an underlying theme and literally illustrating the subtext, by way of overlay, imposition, intrusion or integration (the verb depends upon the degree of effectiveness) of overt symbolic choices. Never having been through, nor read in detail, about van Hove’s process, I cannot particularize how he works through developing a production. I can only say from previous final results that each will succeed or fail or falter between the extremes based on whether this renegade treatment exposes a new, bracing way to think about and envision the text in question; or sacrifices the play, the sensibility and/or the author's intent on the altar of blindly insistent experimentation.
I’m happy to report that van Hove’s take on Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, by way of London’s West End and the Young Vic, is a roaring success.
The story is about Eddie (Mark Strong) an Italian-American dockworker, in Red Hook, Brooklyn, his wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker), and Catherine (Phoebe Fox), his orphaned niece by marriage, to whom he and Beatrice serve as parents. But Catherine is eighteen, about to enter the working world and slowly beginning to realize that she is no longer Eddie’s Little Girl. For Eddie has agreed to let two illegal immigrants shelter under his roof until they get settled: the stoic, silent Marco (Michael Zegan) and his younger brother, blonde, beautiful Rodolfo (Russell Tovey)—and of course it is Rodolfo with whom Catherine quickly becomes smitten, and vice versa. So long as the sanctity of his home, the balance of its elements, has not been knocked off-kilter, Eddie has been able to enjoy Catherine’s flowering womanhood without examining too closely his proprietary desire to protect her from the world—and his decreasing interest in his own wife. But with the threat of Catherine’s sexual and romantic awakening in the arms of a penetrating other, Eddie’s gyroscope slips. He is unable to face down his own burning desire, and thus unable to conquer the anger, and the pervasive feeling of diminished manhood, that seeps into all his behavior. It is, of course, just a matter of time until the feelings explode into first mental, and then physical, violence. The story is told to us—well, set up for us, really, with occasional Greek-chorus comment—by Eddie’s lawyer friend Alfieri (Michael Gould)—one of the few neighborhood boys who “got out,” then returned to help his own.
Van Hove has stripped the play of almost everything descriptively physical except an unavoidable wooden chair that only appears when necessary. Otherwise the playing space is (or seems to be) a large wrestling mat within a larger box (or perhaps in fight terms, it’s a cage). For the most part, this represents Eddie’s apartment, and there is only one way out: an open doorway upstage center in the only visible wall. The mat is perimetered by low benches for the actors to use; the left and right walls are implicit, so that audience members in onstage bleachers that flank the playing space can see. I never got to the NT Live screening of this production last season, and cursory online research is inconclusive, so I can’t tell if London audiences saw this only from the runway perspective in a smaller, reconfigured theatre; but at the Lyceum, there’s also the traditional view from the house and it’s dead on, through the fourth, invisible wall. There could be no more eloquent symbolic portrait of Eddie’s pathology, and the trap it has become for him and others. The costumes are suggestive but unspecific and spare. And the actors perform in bare feet.
Also stripped are all but two of the ancillary characters, the intermission, and text that isn’t absolutely vital to preserve narrative and the breadth of Miller’s Greek tragedy via longshoreman poetry. And thus a play that can in some passages seem overlong and overstated is rendered a tight, taut and essential 90 minutes. And because there are no props, save that one chair, character interrelationships, and the truths that dare not speak their names are magnified, because there’s nothing to hide them behind except words and ever-diminishing restraint.
The cast is extraordinary—all mentioned above being sharply memorable, not only as interpreters of their roles, but as additional fulfillment of van Hove’s vision; he means his actors to etch these people into your mind, with very pointed appearance and physicality and they do—with Michael Strong as a towering, powerful, blazing Eddie at the center (he most brings to mind, for me, the Italian-American actor Stanley Tucci; but also evokes Italian-American actors of similar charisma, and near-operatic effusiveness, in their heyday, like Paul Sorvino and Danny Aiello). There’s sometimes, in a very minor way, the tell of Brits delivering American accents, but never enough to breach the illusion in any meaningful way; and sometimes enough to make you appreciate how well they’re otherwise doing.
Every now and again, you do have to let the madmen run the asylum.
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