It will be a long time before London sees “A View From the Bridge” again. Ivo van Hove’s stripped-back staging, now in the West End after a sell-out Young Vic run last year, is definitive enough to ward a generation off Arthur Miller’s family drama. Played barefoot on a bare white stage, freed from its real-world setting, it’s like the play has been triple-distilled and served neat: 100 percent proof. For two hours straight, it plays on a knife-edge as we wait, wound-tight, for the inevitable detonation of Mark Strong’s Eddie Carbone. You daren’t blink. You scarcely breathe. This is theater as an out of body experience.
If it’s an entrancing, electrifying watch, van Hove also manages to turn us into expert watchers. Every design element works to fine-tune our focus — slow-shifting lights keep your eyes peeled, occasional drumbeats prick up your ears — and the Belgian director teases out so many of the play’s textures and tensions that, watching, you start to feel like a first-class literature major. You get this play — how it works, what it’s saying — and, in a single sitting, that’s incredible. In fact, the text comes to seem close to flawless. Its cocktail of characters prove a uniquely volatile mix and the particular setting makes the perfect catalyst. Miller was aiming for a modern-day Greek tragedy. Van Hove makes the best possible case for it on a minimalist set by Jan Versweyveld that is at once an amphitheater, a church and a giant microscope.
Strong’s Eddie is a man-shaped muscle, held together by skin and so clenched that he seems like stone. At home, initially, he softens to mere clay with his wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker) and his teenage niece Catherine, played girlish and gawky by Phoebe Fox. Their tactile relationship is perfectly pitched: once innocuous, now inappropriate. She’s an overgrown daddy’s girl, basically, jumping into his arms and wrapping her legs round his waist. He traces her thigh without thinking. Yet, as Catherine blossoms into adulthood (her floral top literally blooms), Eddie can’t let go of her.
The Carbones are harboring two illegal immigrants, cousins from Sicily, and when Catherine falls for the younger — blond, handsome Rodolpho (Luke Norris) — Eddie spirals into jealousy. He glowers at the young man he imagines a rival, staring not daggers but drill bits. Strong somehow makes himself denser. He’s leaden, a longshoreman for whom masculinity equals muscle, where Rodolpho’s all levity, played with a springy charisma by Norris.
All the while, Michael Gould’s Alfieri, Eddie’s lawyer and confidante, looks on, horrified, crumpled, sometimes even curled up in the fetal position in the corner; a reminder, always, of the coming calamity. That lets van Hove slow things right down to up the suspense. Silences hang for eons. The same few notes of Faure’s Requiem repeat themselves. The drum goes on like a dripping tap. As the inevitable end encroaches, like a stampede in slow motion, the play tightens its grip. You feel your pupils dilate. Your skin starts to bristle. Your spine starts to shift. The final image, a blood-soaked scrum straight out of Caravaggio, comes as an awful relief; a catharsis that only theater can muster.