STARK, PURE AND PERVERSE: A TRAGEDY FOR THEN AND NOW
This is the toughest of tragedies: it may be a domestic affair, set among poor Italian immigrants under the Brooklyn Bridge in the ‘40’s, but Arthur Miller’s great play sounds every classical note. Love, honour, death. Eddie Carbone the longshoreman stands with Oedipus and Othello, Lear and Lancelot. His end is violent, sordid and useless yet as the lawyer-narrator Alfieri says, “Something perversely pure calls to me from his memory, and I mourn him”.
There is perverse purity too in this production from Amsterdam director Ivo van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld . We sit around a dark featureless box, which rises – not far, for it lowers overhead like the bridge itself – to show a square white floor with one dark door (shuttered only at one terrible late moment when there’s no way out). Here, without period distractions or props, in two hours family normality becomes a madness of passion and stark revenge.
Alfieri the lawyer (Michael Gould) initially roams the aisles outside the square, as he becomes involved he enters the square to become part of the terrible climax. At first I found this bare staging alienating, remembering the detailed domestic significances in Sarah Frankcom’s fine Manchester production. But van Hove’s forceful simplicity pares it down, as if we observed men and women like mere ants in a glass box: trapped, building, warring. And despite some stylized scenes, it is far from coldly forensic.
Its peril rises, as Alfieri says, from “Love – sometimes it’s too much, and it goes where it mustn’t”. Eddie, the powerful, rangy, shaven-headed patriarch (Mark Strong) has raised his dead sister’s child Catherine (Phoebe Fox), who is now seventeen. Miller’s watchful wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker) is keen that she should go to work, spread her wings; Uncle Eddie is fondly overprotective. The artful way Miller eases us from cheerful domestic argument to unease is superbly tracked in every gesture and tone of these three: when Beatrice’s illegal-immigrant cousins arrive, the fuse is lit. Emun Elliott is the dark, broodingly lonely Marco, supporting three faraway children in Sicilian poverty for “if I stay there, they will never grow up”. But his brother Rodolpho is fair, loves to sing and dreams of a motorbike. Catherine falls for him. Eddie resents it, never acknowledging the darkness of his own love, and in the few risible moments Miller allows us, he convinces himself that Rodolpho is gay because he cooks and helps with dressmaking, and therefore is courting the girl just to get citizenship.
The only one way to be rid of him is the ultimate betrayal to the authorities , unthinkable in a tight immigrant community. But Eddie’s passion burns out his goodness, so the dark and bloody wave approaches and breaks: literally, in a shockingly staged climax.
Miller built the play round a story from a lawyer who worked with those 1940’s Italian-American longshoremen; late in life – seeing it in a revival – he admitted to finding elements of his own psychological hinterland there. It has that kind of dark half-realized dangerous power, and here the very starkness of direction makes it universal. You shiver at Eddie – “His eyes were like tunnels…a passion had moved into his body like a stranger” . But you can weep too when as Catherine, needing to turn away from her affection for him to a healthier passion, explodes in grief. Phoebe Fox shockingly, brilliantly, discards the ingénue for the wildcat.
So, a brilliant production, and startlingly one for today. Not only because dangerous loves are always with us (and indeed in the news) but because all around the Young Vic with its warm, intense local audiences the streets of South and East London teem with such families. They too live on the edge and may shelter illegal arrivals, come from poorer lands to work and send money home. There are no doubt tragedies under our bridges too.
box office www.youngvic.org / 020 7922 2922 to 7 June