‘A first-rate revival’: Ben Brooker on Kate Champion’s A View from the Bridge at Adelaide’s State Theatre Company
It’s hard to escape the feeling that there’s something unerringly modern, even prophetic, about the self-destructing male patriarchs that sit at the heart of Arthur Miller’s great 20th century tragedies – Willie Loman in Death of A Salesman, Joe Keller in All My Sons, or Eddie Carbone in A View from the Bridge. These days we talk easily, even glibly, of masculinity’s toxicity. But these men – buffeted by the winds of social and economic change, and loaded with Aristotelian hamartia – give powerful shape to the human cost, to themselves and others, of their failure to reconcile with a rapidly evolving world, and their own unexpressed, perhaps inexpressible, interior lives.
I suppose this must be why there’s been so much Miller about of late. All My Sons and Death of a Salesman have both enjoyed multiple revivals in the West End and on Broadway in the last decade. In Australia, the Melbourne Theatre Company’s recent, widely-lauded production of A View from the Bridge drew (sometimes snarky) comparisons with Ivo van Hove’s astonishing 2015 reimagining at the Young Vic, broadcast worldwide in cinemas as part of the National Theatre Live project. I suppose, too, there is a moral fibre in these plays of a kind not often present in the works of contemporary playwrights, that feels reassuring at a time when our politics seems utterly debased.
First staged as a one-act verse drama in 1955, then rewritten as a two-act play the following year, A View from the Bridge takes place among the docks and tenement buildings of the Italian-American neighbourhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn. Longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Mark Saturno) and wife Beatrice (Elena Carapetis) are the guardians of Catherine (Maiah Stewardson), an orphan soon to turn 18 whose life, ostensibly because of Eddie’s promise to her late mother to look after her, has been cloistered.
The arrival of refugees Marco (Dale March) and Rodolpho (Antoine Jelk) –one punctilious and conventionally masculine, the other effusive and flamboyant, as adept at cooking, singing, and dressmaking as slinging cargo down on the docks – brings the family’s long-unvoiced tensions to the surface. In Eddie’s eyes, Rodolpho is a “punk” who “ain’t right”, a chancer intent on marrying Catherine in order to become an American citizen.
The inexorable machinery of tragedy, adumbrated in the manner of a Greek chorus by the lawyer Alfieri (Bill Allert), is driven by Eddie’s unwillingness to let Catherine go, neither to the company that wants to hire her as a stenographer, nor to Rodolpho, whose affections are obviously genuine. Unable to “make a wife” of Beatrice, and disturbingly fixated on Catherine, Eddie’s emotional ambivalence towards Rodolpho – a symbol of everything he desires but cannot have – seals his descent into a whirlpool of rage, betrayal, and, ultimately, a brutal reckoning with fate. That this reckoning hinges on the expendability of the lives of undocumented immigrants serves to make the play all the more resonant in 2019.
I did not, I’ll admit, have high hopes for this production. While Miller’s plays – finely wrought, and dramaturgically sturdy – are probably as close to director-proof any, Kate Champion’s previous assignment for STCSA, Justin Monjo and Richard Roxburghs’ adaptation of Tim Winton’s That Eye the Sky, resulted in a flat, unwieldy mess. But here Champion has succeeded in synthesising a staging that works from the ground up.
The major challenge for directors in A View from the Bridge lies in balancing the play’s kitchen-sink drama with its classically tragic form. To misjudge this is to risk upending the play into bathos. Champion trusts the cumulative gravity of Miller’s text rather than, as in previous productions, overburdening every moment with significance. Only Champion’s occasional physical theatre flourishes – drawn from rehearsal room contact improvisation – feel miscalculated, letting the audience off the hook at crucial moments, rather than usefully developing our relationship to the drama.
This is a production energisingly alert to the sensuousness of Miller’s text; Eddie’s hulking animality and Catherine and Rodolpho’s lustful courtship are persuasively embodied. Victoria Lamb’s set – unlike those of the starkly minimalist MTC and Young Vic productions – leans into this physicality, its array of ropes, pulleys, and metal frame boxes evoking the hard labour of life on the docks as the actors hustle up, down, and across them at telling moments.
Chris Petridis’ shadowy, crepuscular lighting, filtering soft white and midnight blue through an unrelieved curtain of dry ice, suggests oceanic depths. Enken Hagge’s costumes and Jason Sweeney’s sound design, each unobtrusively resisting historical specificity, are equally effective. It all adds up, across the play’s two-hour running time, to an almost undiluted feeling of impending doom (I say “almost” because the interval – often dispensed with in contemporary revivals, a convention that might advantageously have been followed here – provides some relief).
The entire cast – with, perhaps, the exception of Bill Allert, who doesn’t quite bring the necessary gravitas to the role of Alfieri – are excellent; the performances connected and carefully measured to wring the most out of the text’s emotional nuance and rising action. Saturno and Carapetis have probably never been better, the former’s Eddie mercurial and unnerving, the latter’s Beatrice compellingly brittle but ultimately resilient. The cast’s younger members more than hold their own alongside them, especially Stewardson who transforms the role of Catherine into something far more interesting – by turns determined, fretful, and precocious – than the ingénue it might otherwise be.
When, on opening night during the play’s climax, I caught sight of an audience member literally on the edge of her seat, her mouth gaping wide in anticipatory shock, my creeping suspicion that I was in the presence of a first-rate revival was confirmed. That a play more than 50 years old can still arouse Aristotle’s “pleasure of pity and fear” while remaining socially and politically resonant is a considerable achievement. As Miller himself once put it: “It is curious, though edifying, that the plays we revere, century after century, are the tragedies”.
A View from the Bridge, by Arthur Miller, directed by Kate Champion. Set designed by Victoria Lamb, costumes by Enken Hagge, lighting design by Chris Petridis, composition and sound design by Jason Sweeney. Performed by Brett Archer, Bill Allert, Elena Carapetis, Antoine Jelk, Chris Asimos, Dale March, Mark Saturno and Maiah Stewardson. State Theatre Company of South Australia, Dunstan Playhouse, until August 3. Bookings
Captioned performance: 31 July, 6:30 pm
Audio description: 23 July, 6:30 pm