Breathe, everybody, breathe! Audiences really need to be reminded of that at the end of Ivo Van Hove’s magnificent production for the Young Vic of “A View From the Bridge,” Arthur Miller’s gut-wrenching 1956 domestic tragedy about a family of Italian immigrants living in Red Hook in the 1950s, a cruel era for immigrants. The show, anchored by a towering performance from Mark Strong as a longshoreman whose willful blindness causes his whole world to come crashing down, is both visually gorgeous and an emotional wipeout.
Miller always envisioned his protagonist as a blue-collar version of a classic tragic hero. Like the kings of ancient Greek tragedies, Eddie Carbone (Strong, who won an Olivier Award for his superb performance) is a respected leader in his Brooklyn neighborhood, a man of honor whom his Italian immigrant neighbors look up to and depend on for guidance. Like those monarchs, he keeps protective watch over his little kingdom, while refusing to see what he doesn’t want to see. And that’s his tragic flaw.
Van Hove and his longtime scenic and lighting designer, Jan Versweyveld, have been almost fanatically faithful to Miller’s vision by literally stripping the play down to its elemental structure. In a wordless prologue that delivers the same message in figurative language, Eddie and his best friend, Louis (Richard Hansell), stand in a rusty haze of polluted air, stripping off their work clothes and slowly washing themselves before heading home from another hard day on the docks.
“Home” is a featureless square space in this expressionistic production, hemmed in by low benches on two sides, a rear door that opens to an ominous black hole, and a low flat ceiling like the top of a box. There are absolutely no furnishings in this unprotected space, nowhere to sit and nowhere to hide. Members of the audience sit in bleachers on both sides of the open stage, so close to the action they share the same breathing space with the actors, all members of the original British production. Talk about vulnerable.
A Greek chorus, in the form of a well-spoken, sympathetic lawyer named Alfieri (Michael Gould, giving a solid performance), narrates the story and warns us that it will end in tragedy for Eddie, a man he perversely admires for giving in to his demons and “allowing himself to be known.” And how can it not end tragically when a good man falls from a great height?
Strong (“Kingsman: the Secret Service”) scales those heights, giving an electrifying performance of raw power and terrifying beauty. Unable to acknowledge his forbidden passion for his orphaned 17-year-old niece, Catherine (Phoebe Fox, who projects more stupidity than innocence), he insists on treating her like a child. He can’t forbid her from going to school or getting a secretarial job, but he rages like a blind bull trying to stop her from marrying an illegal immigrant named Rodolpho (Russell Tovey, another one who makes innocence look stupid).
Rodolpho and his older brother, Marco (Michael Zegen, intense), are relatives of Eddie’s wife, Beatrice (a deep, intelligent performance from the superb Nicola Walker), are living with the family while working on the docks and hiding from the immigration authorities. It’s what families did in those days to get around the highly restrictive quotas for southern Italians in the ’50s and early ’60s. And the most treasonous act anyone could commit was to inform on these desperate immigrants to the authorities.
Van Hove’s austere production — which builds to a jolting final image that is almost unbearably sad — casts the characters’ raw emotions into sharp relief. Traditionally, Beatrice is often portrayed as a loving, if dim-witted housewife who may or may not understand the psychological dynamic behind her husband’s obsessive behavior, but is unable to do anything but nag him to stop. Walker’s fierce performance forces us to acknowledge Beatrice’s intelligence while agonizing over her inability to reach him.
As for Eddie, Strong denies him nothing. He’s uneducated, incurious, and unaware of the demons that are driving him, but he’s a good man, strong, generous and protective of everyone who lives in his narrow world — and he is mighty.