‘If everything is meaningful, then nothing is’: Robert Reid on Iain Sinclair’s hallucinatory production of A View from the Bridge at the Melbourne Theatre Company
This Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of A View From the Bridge stages Arthur Miller’s story of poverty, illegal immigration and obsession in 1950s America with a heavy leaning towards the operatic. Every scene hovers in an immense void.
The actors share the stage with a single wooden chair and a mix of stark cross-lighting and warm pools of yellow. Eddie, the main character, sits in the middle, planted like Macbeth at the centre of a web of betrayal and blood; or light falls around the stage illuminating each character separately, their emotional distance from each other marked out with chasms of shadow.
Niklas Pajanti’s lighting and the staging recall Renaissance paintings: soft, warm, golden light with deep shadows and a spray of cool whites and blues behind. Careful posing, contra-posto and chiaroscuro lend the residents of Red Hook the air of a Raphael or Michelangelo. Evoking mythic European glories, in this light these little people are gods and their desires as changeable as the fates.
Except these aren’t operatic characters. What they say to each other doesn’t match the way they say it, and the contrast is more distracting than it is illuminating.
On the docks and in the slum housing of Red Hook, Brooklyn, Eddie Carbone (Steve Bastoni) is a longshoreman, a member of the second generation Sicilian American community. Eddie and his wife Beatrice (Daniela Farinacci) live with Cathy (Zoe Terakes), their orphaned niece, on whom Eddie has developed an unhealthy fixation.
Eddie promised on Cathy’s mother’s death bed that he’d look after the baby girl and that’s what he’s done all these years. But as we join their story, she is about to turn 18. Kept infantile by Eddie’s strict care, Cathy has stayed at home working at her studies. Eddie’s affection for her is in question from early on.
Their relationship is complex and deeply troubling, not only to us but to those around him. Bea warns Cathy not to run around in her slip or sit talking to Eddie while he shaves in his underwear. She tells her that she’s not a child anymore, she’s a grown woman, and she’s sharing the house with a grown man. There is plenty more that suggests Eddie’s interest in Cathy is more than parental, and this production, with its tendency towards the operatic, leans hard into this theme.
Eddie and Bea take in two refugees from the old country, one, Marco (Damien Walshe-Howling), who is more traditionally masculine, and Rodolfo (Andrew Coshan), who immediately catches Cathy’s eye. To Eddie, Rodolfo is “not right,” and a “punk”: he dances, sings, makes dresses and cooks. Eddie becomes convinced that Rodolfo is only interested in Cathy in order to obtain a green card marriage and gain American citizenship. And while he careens between his paranoias, the people around him – Beatrice, Marco, Rodolfo and Alfieri (Marco Chiappi), the private detective engaged by Eddie – all attempt to wean him from his unhealthy obsession.
Eddie’s world gives the impression of having been carefully structured, built as an unconscious cage around his feelings for Cathy. The cracks in it begin to show as soon as Cathy wants to take a job. He collapses inward into a mess of disintegrating masculinities and desires, but it’s a process that has begun months before the whirlwind romance between Rodolfo and Cathy.
Eddie’s relationship with Bea has cooled, their intimate life particularly. Bea begs Eddie at one point “When am I gonna be a wife again?” “I can’t do those things, in bed, what you wanna do,” he tells her. Even in the end, in the final confrontation between Eddie and Marco, Eddie betrays himself as a coward and cheat, hiding a knife and going armed into a fight for the honour of violent men. This is his downfall, as Marco evades the knife and turns it back onto Eddie. His death is framed as if it’s a da Vinci painting.
This play demands a delicate balance in production. Eddie’s patriarchal power in the home – which spirals from xenophobia to homophobia to the betrayal of old world loyalties – must be balanced with his obsession with Cathy and the neuroses he has constructed to insulate himself from his own desires. Give too much weight to any of these elements, and the play risks toppling into melodrama.
Iain Sinclair’s staging is slow and drawn out. Everything has so much weight from the beginning that the experience feels sluggish rather than portentous, with heavy pauses between sentences, even between words, and long, purposeful silences at the centre of scenes. Eddie, brooding and seething, dominates all the action around him. Every moment feels like it wants to be epic. Every impulse seems dragged into eternity. As the stakes rise, this leaves the production little option but to increase in volume. Even when they whisper, they’re still shouting.
The actors have to run on from the wings through darkness to reach the spots of light. There’s no set as such; or rather, the set is a black box stretching back from the proscenium arch, with a single chair and some suggestion of apartment buildings from highlights on the wings. There’s a near constant fog of low-hanging smoke that pours out from the wings, sketching in the pollution and fog of a port city, but it never becomes more than a framing device, and fades like wall paper into the background of our experience. Altogether it has the effect of making the entire experience seem to float, bobbing in a small craft out on the dark ocean at night. It’s hallucinatory: the whole thing might be a dream.
The crucial shifts in the characters over the course of A View from the Bridge seem to come out of nowhere. The sex scene between Cathy and Rodolfo escalates rapidly out of hand-holding innocence, making it feel awkward and forced; perhaps we’ve seen too little of them together. The empty set, the darkness, the simple lack of stuff, takes something crucial away from the play and ultimately unbalances the delicate dramaturgy of Miller’s writing. The claustrophobia of the New York apartments – living on top of each other, never getting away from each other, sleeping on the floor – goes missing in the dark. It feels like an American Woyzeck, like an expressionistic descent into madness.
It’s frustrating because there is so much more in this play that is pressingly resonant with the problems of Australia today: illegal immigration, patriarchal family violence – hell, even the plight of the abandoned working poor… but these are skimmed over by this production as it prowls around like a Schafferian psychodrama.
The accents, heavy, deep, slow New York drawls, are carried around like heavy concrete sacks. They sap the performances of nuance and drain their interactions of emotional connection. Two dense hours, no interval, grind past us at the same speed and at varying levels of always intense. There’s no release, there’s no contrast, there’s no breath: and consequently there’s no depth, no revelation and no drama.
If everything is meaningful, then nothing is.
A View from the Bridge, by Arthur Miller. Directed by Iain Sinclair. Set and Costume by Christina Smith. Lighting Design by Niklas Pajanti. Composer and Sound design by Kelly Ryall. Voice and Dialect by Anna McCrossin-Owen. Performed by Steve Bastoni, Marco Chiappi, Andrew Coshan, Daniella Farinacci, Simon Maiden, Zoe Tarakes and Damien Walsh Howling. Melbourne Theatre Company, Southbank Theatre. Until April 18 Bookings
Wheelchair accessible. Assisted hearing.
Audio Described: Saturday 30 March at 2pm, Tuesday 2 April at 6.30pm
Tactile Tour: Prior to the Saturday performance at 1pm
Open Captioning via screen: Saturday 6 April at 2pm