Ivo van Hove’s work is no stranger to the standing ovation. If it was hardly a surprise for the Barbican audience to have given such a reception to the marathon Roman Tragedies (2010) or vertiginous Scenes from a Marriage (2013), the overwhelming enthusiasm for his latest work at the Young Vic really seals the deal. But as the audience around me was – deservedly – jumping up to their feet I was trying to fathom what they were actually applauding: The play, the director, or the actors?
And here was I on a rare trip to the theatre – the first one on my own since giving birth in December – thinking of my students. Not specific ones, just students of directing I have taught, and the general preconception they tend to arrive with that a good time in the theatre equals good acting, and that the main job of the director is to facilitate this. When they direct, many of them approach the task by simply trying to bring out the kind of performances they like to see or that they would instinctively create themselves if they were playing those parts. This is a generalisation – and I must admit that there have been honourable exceptions to this – but it’s a tendency that crops up frequently enough in practice not to go unnoticed. And I think it is rooted in the British cultural heritage of a theatre director as an actor manager rather than an author in his own right.
As it happens, Van Hove did bring out first class performances from his British cast (cumulatively far stronger perhaps even than the performances of his own ensemble members previously seen here), but the way he did this seems very different than my students might have expected.
I have already written about the way in which Van Hove’s approach to text can be distinguished from that of a British director by reference to an intense interest in dramaturgy. In his production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, Van Hove demonstrates that this approach does not have to be culture specific. It does not have to be radical in terms of staging or the treatment of text itself. It works even with an American play, British and American actors, and a British audience. (British critics seemingly too, though at the time of writing this response I have deliberately not read any of the reviews yet). This deep dramaturgical reading of a play can also be deployed to serve the text in the same way that British directors tend to do, but in this case, everything coheres around what the director and dramaturg have decided the play is about rather than ‘what the author might have intended’. And by being directed with such clarity, the actors are truly liberated to shine. Which they do, to a magnificent extent.
So what did Van Hove do with Miller’s text exactly?
The world of the play is literally encapsulated by Jan Versweyveld’s set – an empty white box whose walls lift up at the beginning to offer a lateral cross section view of the characters’ lives. This could be an imaginary courtyard, an enterior, a prison, a morgue and, towards the end, it even offers a chilling prospect of a metaphorical abatoir.
Even though the play opens with naturalistic physical gestures denoting the characters’ interactions, the set is bare and, gradually, dramatic action becomes increasingly spare too. The performance is almost entirely underscored with an atmospheric, solemn score.
When the narrator – the lawyer Alfieri – enters the story half way through, he takes his shoes off to join the other barefoot characters. The rising tensions between characters are underlined in a scene where they all sit around the edges of the set taking turns in speaking their lines to the beat of a metronome. Thus the diegisis enters the mise en scene, divorcing the action from the text and making way for a theatrical metaphor. This will culminate later in a scene where the immigration authorities arrive to arrest Marco and Rodolpho and which is rendered almost entirely verbally with Alfieri reciting the stage directions as the rest of the cast acquire more of a choric function. The moulding of the ensemble into metaphorical stage imagery will ultimately provide a fittingly epic finale to the piece as a whole too.
Miller’s own choice to tell the story as a combination of Greek tragedy and Brechtian episodic narrative as well as van Hove’s non-naturalistic directorial approach are both conducive towards an acting idiom which is not rooted in psychological realism. So we are at no point in the show invited to respond sentimentally. And yet, the acting is, as I have mentioned above, the most powerful aspect of the production which does eventually elicit a catharsis of sorts. In this way van Hove reveals another possible conception of dramatic character as bearer of metaphorical value rather than a role model for everyday human behaviour. In any case there is nothing everyday about tragic characters such as these.
In other words, Eddie Carbone is not an incestuous uncle modelled on someone from Jerry Springer. Instead he becomes an impersonation of a particular flaw – the inability to let go – which may afflict anyone. Catherine is not an innocent victim; she has the wisdom to know what love is and how her uncle should be loved by a woman, or when she should escape his grip to love another man. These characters are interesting not because they are recognisable but because they are irreducible to a stereotype. They are both right and wrong and it takes some deliberation to view their behaviour in terms of the law of nature, as Alfieri suggests.
And so, as Eddie attempted to defend his overprotectiveness of Catherine by reference to the promise he made to her mother, I suddenly thought that he is no different than the theatre directors who feel their job is to honour the text. Stretching the analogy further I wondered what model of directorial intention the rest of these characters might embody. There is Eddie Carbone’s tenacity, Beatrice’s didacticism, Rodolpho’s unconventional, ethereal, enticing ways. Or there is the route of pragmatic straightforwardness and physical prowess of Marco whose method is most searingly summed up in an act of lifting a chair. Finally there is Catherine who entertains our expectations up to a certain extent until she shows us she knows how to fly. And I would liken van Hove’s approach on this occasion to hers. Whether or not this might seem a far fetched proposition, I would certainly recommend this show to any theatre student as a primer in how to read a play.
This piece was originally posted on Duška Radosavljević’s Theatre Travelogues blog.
Stewart Pringle’s A View from The Bridge review for Exeunt.