When Arthur Miller first sat down to write the tragedy of A View from the Bridge, it was a one-act verse drama and it wasn’t very popular; so Miller expanded it into a more conventional two-act-er, retaining the presence of a chorus-like narrator but otherwise smoothing it into a form more palatable to fans of early hits All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. In Ivo Van Hove’s essential production it is one act again, as Miller’s prose masterpiece of ancient failings is compressed into two searing hours of pressure-cooking in a monolithic design by Jan Versweyveld. The fussy trappings of naturalism have been all but seared from its bones, and Miller’s writing has never felt so potent and so purposeful.
Van Hove’s success is predicated not on theatrical flashiness, though there is plenty of that, but on a deep understanding of the text expressed with such force and eloquence that our own is deepened to a startling extent. By stripping the play down its elements Van Hove emphasises the elemental, and by exposing its structural underpinnings he increases rather than diminishes our appreciation of Miller’s craft.
Mark Strong plays Eddie Carbone, the salt of the docks sort of fellow burdened with an impossible sexual obsession that tweaks at his guts. He scratches out a living with his wife and their orphaned niece in the slum of Red Hook, where legal and illegal immigrants mix in a fringe city where old family loyalties and an underground communality exist outside and against the boundaries of government law. Work is scarce, but compared to the desolate towns of Italy it is plentiful, and Van Hove requires only the barest of signifiers to make Miller’s vision of this powder-keg district Perspex-clear.
There’s breath-halting work from Phoebe Fox as the niece who twists Eddie into self-destruction, and from Nicola Walker as his haunted wife, who expresses such unbearable pain in her opening scenes – hunted by suspicion and already half-defeated when the play begins. Luke Norris is scarcely slacking either, as pretty-boy ‘submarine’ Rudolpho, and Emun Elliot makes up in trickle-charged fury what he lacks in physical stature as brutally strong Marco. Van Hove, with the aid of Versweyveld’s sublime lighting, transforms his triumph over Eddie in a childish test of strength into a beatific victory.
For the most part, Van Hove’s direction works within a naturalist palette, despite the stark staging, but the twists he applies to it are inspired. Michael Gould’s narrator cowers at the edge of the stage as the inevitable; the predicted, ageless inevitable, shifts into place. Best of all, the scene which follows the final syzygy of terrible forces is abstracted and decelerated to a metronomic monotony. Van Hove savages the very existence of words in the wordless space between the beginning of a fall and the collision with the ground, while at the same time acknowledging Miller’s own command of speech and silence. It’s such a bravura moment that the play actually takes several scenes to recover from it, and if this production has a fault, it lies in those subsequent encounters which Van Hove has, if anything, prepared us for too well.
The final result is a triumph of synergy. Synergy between Van Hove’s command of the text and Versweyveld’s of the space. The final visual coup de theatre is spectacular, but in truth it pales beside the first one, as the stage space opens like the door of a furnace and strong, unyielding bodies begin to form through the orange smoke. Tom Gibbons’ sound design plays a vital, ever-present role – rumbling and soaring as it traverses gutter and alter. But above all of this, and thanks to all of this, it is Miller’s play which rings in the ears and persists on the eyes when the door of Van Hove’s brilliant crematorium closes.