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Manchester theatre reviews

A View From The Bridge by Arthur Miller

Performed at Royal Exchange Theatre

Directed by Sarah Frankcom and designed by James Cotterill

Reviewed by Jane Turner May 2011

'The real villain in this play is not the foolish and misguided character of Eddie Carbone, but the Immigration Laws.'


The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester is an ideal setting for Arthur Miller’s play “A View from the Bridge”, its structure being suspended bridge-like from huge marble pillars situated in the centre of the great hall of the old Exchange, where old and new contrast but co-exist in symbiosis. This modern seven-sided steel and glass-walled theatre hangs favourably among the grandiose features of the Grade II listed building which was once the gathering place of mill-owners and merchants bartering for cotton and textiles, and which is now home to cafes, craft shops, writing workshops and various relics from a bygone age, where tourists now amass instead of traders. Bombed in World War Two, damaged by the IRA’s efforts in 1996 and revitalised with national lottery funding it now houses this innovative theatre, providing its audiences with a truly intimate theatrical experience, with everyone being seated just seven metres from the set due to the unique circular design of the marvellously engineered internal structure.

 

The proximity to the set and cast is just right for this particular production, and allows you the feeling of being a fly on the wall and part of the sparsely furnished Carbone family living room, where most of the scenes in this play take place. The daily rituals of this family drama unfold right in front of you and I felt a little like the James Stewart character in Alfred Hitchcock’s observantly filmed “Rear Window” as I settled down in the cosy sitting room to spy on the neighbours. Being that close to the set, the cosiness turns to claustrophobia as you begin to feel and almost touch the tension as it germinates, grows and reaches its climax and you realise you are hooked into something you can’t escape from and that nothing is as it initially appears in this seemingly ordinary family.

 

Arthur Miller 1915 - 2005First staged in 1955, A View from the Bridge is a play by the prominent and prolific American playwright and essayist Arthur Miller, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants who arrived in America in search of a better life, and who worked hard to build up their business and amass a small fortune, only to lose it all in the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the experience of which informed Millers writing and provided his insight into the lives of immigrants.

 

He was accused of being a communist during the McCarthy era and refused to provide the names of his friends with “communist sympathies” at the “House of Un-American Activities Committee” which he famously likened to the Salem witch trials of 1692. Miller is well known for his works Death of a Salesman, All My Sons and The Crucible, just some of the many screenplays, radio-plays, works of fiction and non-fiction he wrote during his seven decade career and because of his marriage to the actress Marilyn Monroe, which fell apart during filming of one of his scripted films The Misfits. He died aged 89 in 2005.

 

The play is staged in 1950’s America and illustrates what now seem like old-fashioned attitudes and some enduring values from those times in the lives of the ordinary in an Italian-American, poor slum neighbourhood known as Red Hook near the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. The housing is so close to the dock that the residents can tell which ships are in by the smells from the cargo hanging in the air and permeating every pore and look forward to some coffee on the table from a “split sack” when the ships arrive from Brazil. It is set against the backdrop of life on the docks, where Miller worked for two years whilst making his name as a writer and where he overheard the true tale of two brothers, illegal workers who had been ratted on to the Immigration Bureau, and inspired him to write A View from the Bridge.

 

Brooklyn BridgeNarration is provided by the character of Alfieri, a lawyer, with most of the action taking place in the home of Eddie and Beatrice Carbone. At its heart it is a straightforward and commonplace “kitchen-sink” family drama with themes of love, jealousy, family loyalty, honour and vengeance, given an added kick from the issue of immigration. Although much has changed since the 1950’s and the macho attitudes reflected largely put to bed, the issue of immigration rears its ugly head in almost the same way then as it does now and provides the audience with a link from past to present and some familiar questions and behaviours to mull over.


Miller’s script and the clever production craft this tale of everyday life into a rather more extraordinary drama. By drawing on the personality of the characters, the moods they create and by weaving in ideas from Greek tragedy the audience is put through an enjoyable but rather intense experience.


Not being an over-complex tale it is easy to guess what is likely to happen from the outset and the drama is created in the unfolding of the story and by the crazy machismo bulldozer of a character that is Eddie Carbone (played with great force by the well known actor Con O’Neill). O’Neill is Carbone personified, an actor totally immersed in his role and almost exactly as I would have imagined him – short, stocky, rough around the edges, nasal, chesty, twitchy, coarse in manner and language and with the stance of a man who has been physically exhausted by years of long, hard and mind-numbing work.


Con O'NeillDuring A View from the Bridge, the Carbone family are torn apart by mistrust, jealousy and violence. The drama evolves around Eddie, who is the focal point around which all the conflict in the play revolves. His character is verbally and physically antagonistic, and his bruising manner creates tension in every scene and results in tragedy. What is an essentially private matter gets played out in public – although in the days before the Web and Twitter, the public are simply those in the immediate neighbourhood made up largely of first and second generation European immigrants. The central themes are love, justice, law and honour with love being the source of happiness, angst and conflict and where family comes first and “snitching to immigration” is deserving of punishment in traditional and time-honoured ways. The play sets us a very basic conflict – civilised American law in the city versus the uncivilised Italian rural traditions – and the new more enlightened ways as opposed to the old ways of male-dominated, blokeish and traditional. The women in the play are mostly submissive on-lookers, dominated and patronised by their men and considered in need of protection and guidance.


Eddie is an Italian-American dockworker, who lives with his wife Beatrice (well cast in Anna Francolini) and his orphaned 17 year old niece Catherine. Francolini gives a convincing performance as Bea and looks every inch the fifties housewife, donned in pinny, in and out of the kitchen, forever laying and clearing the table, washing dishes and generally cosseting her man. Catherine, or Katie as Uncle Eddie calls her, is a girl on the cusp of womanhood who adores her Uncle and fusses fondly around him when he returns from work each day and is played rather sweetly by Leila Mimmack dressed head-to-toe in the rather demure fashion of the fifties. At the beginning of the play, Eddie is protective and kind towards Catherine, in a patronising paternalistic way reflective of the times and his relationship as her guardian. A little too controlling according to the observant Bea who tells him he has to “let her go”. He doesn’t like her standing at the door “for all the neighbourhood to see” or “walking wavy” as he puts it, as there are “too many heads turning”. He tells her she has to “mind herself a little more” in the neighbourhood, putting the onus for the attention she is getting firmly at her door in that well known chauvinistic manner. His feelings for her grow into something a little less avuncular and border on the incestuous as the story develops and he becomes unhealthily obsessed with her, becoming more and more over-protective, controlling and neglectful of his own relationship with Beatrice.


His attachment to her is brought into perspective by the arrival from Italy of Beatrice’s two cousins, the brothers Marco and Rodolpho. Marco (Nitzan Sharron in his first appearance at the Royal Exchange) looks just like a traditional Italian “family man”, dark-haired with an olive complexion, well-mannered, quiet, polite and physically strong and with a young, sick and starving family back home he hopes to use his strength to make enough money to send back home to provide his family with food and medicine. Rodolpho (played by Ronan Raftery, who arrives like a cool breeze into the dark and brooding macho atmosphere of the Carbone apartment) is young, single, good-looking, cheerful and - significantly - blonde-haired, and wants to leave village life in Italy behind for good and stay in America.


Italy’s economy at that time was poor, still largely un-industrialised and slow to grow, and many were unemployed. There was a thriving trade in illegal immigration to the USA particularly on the docks, as many dockyard owners were happy to take advantage of the cheap labour and “look the other way” when it came to “the paperwork”. Italian labour was said to rival Irish immigrant labour in terms of their willingness to work long hours for low wages (a bit like today’s Europeans who are said to be better value than their native British working class counterparts because they cost less and produce more or as Ratan Tata would put it, have no “work ethic issues”).

 

Immigrants arriving in New YorkThe Italian and Irish dockworkers were as common in New York in the fifties as the Polish plumbers, cleaners and Romanian construction workers are in the UK today, and were and still are used as cheap labour for long hours by profiteering employers. In one scene from the play, indigenous workers are seen talking about their own employment prospects and joke that it would be easier to get work if they were to leave the country and come back in again on a boat, as was the way of passage for most immigrants. They note that Marco is “as strong as a bull” and could “load a whole ship by himself” echoing sentiments heard today about how long and hard immigrant workers are prepared to work and thus in the process, undercut the indigenous workers and create resentment in the neighbourhoods and communities around them.


Then as now, many immigrant families already settled, took in relatives from the home country seeing it as an honour and a duty to help them out in their quest to leave behind hunger and poverty for a better life. Both of the young men in this tale have entered the country illegally, having neither the time nor the cash to go through the whole legal process and in dire need of making money as quickly as possible. Like most immigrants they plan to return home eventually and see America as a place where they can find employment, work hard and make money to send home. They make great sacrifices to do this, leaving behind relatives who they may not see for years while they work to repay loans to those who assisted in the immigration process and exist alongside others in similar circumstances often in over-crowded conditions and are ripe for exploitation.


Rodolpho is like a breath of fresh air, he revels in his new surroundings, is optimistic, enthusiastic and keen to take in the sights and sounds of the big city and enjoys taking Catherine along with him. It quickly becomes obvious that they are falling in love which bothers and eats away at Eddie. He takes a dislike to Rodolpho, despising his youth and good-looks, his singing, dancing, cooking and what he sees as his “feminine and un-manly ways”. “He’s not right, he has blonde hair!” he repeats as he is overcome with jealousy at no longer being at the centre of Catherine’s world and deliberately tries to undermine the relationship by pointing out all of Rodolpho’s “flaws” and hinting at his homosexuality to Catherine and Beatrice at every opportunity.

 

Catherine ignores her Uncle and continues the relationship, soon announcing her engagement and plans to marry Rodolpho. Eddie’s jealousy gets out of hand and he accuses Rodolpho of “marrying for a passport”. Desperate to stop the marriage he asks for help from his friend and lawyer Alfieri (Ian Redford) a man used to dealing with the “petty troubles of the poor”. Alfieri tells him that the only way the law can help is if he informs the Immigration Bureau about the presence of the illegal immigrants. Eddie refuses to do this because it would be “dishonourable” and so he continues his attempts to break up the relationship by insulting Rodolpho.


In one primitive show of machismo, Eddie attempts to demonstrate his superior masculinity and highlight Rodolpho’s inferiority by persuading him to engage in some boxing and sends him flying across the living room. This annoys the protective brother Marco who tries to display his own macho superiority by picking up and raising a chair with one hand and holding it above his head in an effort to show Eddie, how strong he is both physically and mentally. Like a set of rutting animals they prance around the living room in a desperate display of manliness that impresses nobody.


Unable to stand the flourishing relationship any longer, Eddie ignores the advice of Alfieri to let their affair run its course and in desperation he does the “dishonourable” thing and telephones the Immigration Bureau. It is a betrayal that proves disastrous. When the Immigration Officers arrive and bang down the door and ransack the premises the cousins, along with several other “illegals” are arrested and put in jail. 


In the aftermath that follows Rodolpho is allowed to stay in the country due to his marriage to Catherine but Marco faces deportation. Eddie, still blinded by his feelings towards Catherine refuses to attend the wedding and forbids Beatrice from attending too. He rejects Rodolpho’s offer of reconciliation and when Marco arrives on the scene, a fight breaks out in the street. Marco spits in Eddies face (no getting away from doing it properly either when the audience are sitting right next to you. Eugh!). This is customary in Italy and marks Eddie out as a traitor in front of a crowd of neighbours (many of whom are housing illegal relatives themselves). The neighbours turn away from Eddie in anger and disgust and his reputation lies in ruins. “All the law is not in a book!” says Marco. A man who “rats on” and betrays his family to the law, is subject to "our rules, our customs".

 

In the final scene of the play, Eddie’s anger at losing Catherine as well as his reputation as a good and honourable man is directed at Marco and he starts a fight with him, pulling out a knife when his fists are not up to the job of dealing with a younger and stronger man. But it is Marco who is able to grab and twist it towards Eddie, and as the curtain falls Eddie is left dying in the arms of his wife Beatrice against the grim streetscape backdrop of Brooklyn’s tenements.


As the lights went on and the cast all gathered for the final applause, the audience cheered and clapped long and loudly, for it was a truly brilliant production with many stand-out performances from the cast, who laid their souls bare and played their roles with honesty, conviction and great Brooklyn accents to boot. For sure Con O’Neill was born for the role of Eddie Carbone, even if he will have to endure night after night of being spat at in the process!


This play was written in and set in the 1950’s. As well as its central themes of love, family honour and loyalty, it is also a tale about “the immigrant” an experience with which Miller was familiar, being the child of immigrants and living and working in an immigrant community. It touches on the concepts of legal and illegal immigration; burning issues around the world today, as many people flee the country of their birth because of war, poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunity and in order to seek a better life. Just as Miller's parents started a new life in America, and the characters in A View from the Bridge try to escape poverty in Italy, as capitalism hits another crisis and rulers are challenged as they apply a range of austerity measures and cutbacks, the ordinary citizens of many countries set off from home with the hope of finding work and a better life elsewhere.


The real villain in this story is not the foolish and mis-guided Eddie, but the anti-immigration laws that categorise ordinary people as criminals simply because they have the desire for a better life and the guts and bravery to move to another country in search of it. Without such laws there would have been no dilemma for Eddie, no such act of treachery and disloyalty and no tragic ending. Open borders and freedom of movement for all, a different performance to talk about maybe but one well worth promoting.

 

Performances are 18 May - 25 June 2011.

 
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