A View From The Bridge – Headlong – review

Headlong’s version of Arthur Miller’s classic is well acted but over egged

★★★

Jonathan Slinger & Katy Bushell in A View From The Bridge. Photo: The Other Richard

A View from The Bridge is a modern classic. Rooted in ancient Greek tragedy, it was written by Arthur Miller, a man who has a claim to be the greatest playwright of the twentieth century.

When you produce a new version of a classic play, inevitably some of your audience will have memories of previous productions. In Britain, Alan Ayckbourn’s 1987 National Theatre production with the great Michael Gambon and Ivo Von Hove’s 2014 Young Vic production starring Mark Strong both loom large as benchmarks. They may be hard acts to follow, but theatre demands new productions. Of course, you can watch a film of the Young Vic production, but a stage play is designed to be a unique nightly collaboration between actors and us the audience.

So I looked forward to Headlong’s production, which has been co-produced with Chichester Festival Theatre, Octagon Theatre Bolton, and the Rose Theatre. Thanks to the accomplished well-directed cast, Headlong’s A View From The Bridge is worth seeing, but, in an over egged production, the director doesn’t allow the play to speak for itself.

Let’s start with a brief summary of the plot. Eddie Carbone is a longshoreman or dock worker in New York. He lives in an Italian American community, just below the Brooklyn Bridge. And Miller tells us that title refers to us- the middle class audience with our modern outlook- observing from the bridge this normally out-of-sight working class community rooted in a more ancient culture.

Eddie and his wife Beatrice have brought up her dead sister’s daughter Catherine who has now arrived at that moment when a child becomes an adult. (It’s around 1950, so we must accept that kids grew up more slowly in those days.) Eddie still sees her as the little girl he needs to protect but that feeling is now coloured by an unacknowledged sexual attraction.

Then two of Bea’s cousins arrive from Italy. The brothers are illegal immigrants, what we might call today economic migrants who have escaped the poverty, in Rodolpho’s case to become an American citizen, in Marco’s case to earn money to support his family.

Things start to go wrong when Catherine and Rodolpho fall in love. Eddie is jealous but hides this by implying that Rodolpho is really gay and is tricking Catherine into marrying him in order to gain US citizenship. Eddie’s inner conflict and how this inarticulate working class man deals with it is the core of the tragedy of this play.

The cast are uniformly excellent and Holly Race Roughan’s production gives them the space to savour the language of the play. Jonathan Slinger as Eddie brings out the frustration, ignorance and anger required in the role, as he swaggers, slumps, stares and rages.

Rachelle Diedericks as Catherine starts naïve, barely recognising her own sexual power. She matures until by the end of the play she is confident enough to shout down Eddie. It’s a subtle blossoming that marks Ms Diedericks as an actor to watch out for.

Eddie’s conduct is appalling and it’s hard to feel sympathy for him but he presents a challenge for Catherine and Beatrice, who both love him, and are in many ways the play’s ultimate victims.

Bea is possibly the most interesting character. She clearly envies Catherine and encourages her to take advantage of opportunities she never had. Kirsty Bushell imbues Bea with an inner strength and confidence which give her a power over Eddie, and for much of the play she is able to subdue his more extreme behaviour.  She is frustrated by Eddie’s lack of sexual interest in her and her constant revealing of her legs can be taken as a sign of her own active sexuality.

Why is Eddie not interested in her? It is not simply that he is distracted by Catherine. The text hints that he may have, again uncoinscious, homosexual leanings, which adds another layer to this complex play. Maybe Eddie is even attracted to Rodolpho.

It’s possible that Arthur Miller would have developed this more, if he’d written the play today, but this production decides to do the job for him by featuring a fantasy male ballet dancer performing homoerotically in front of Eddie. I don’t know why Holly Race Roughan, who us s talented director, felt we needed this aspect of the play marked with a fluorescent pen. Just as earlier, when we first see Catherine, she is on a children’s swing, a prop that seems to clutter the stage and serve no purpose except to underline her adolescence. It’s as if the director doesn’t trust the text to make the point without underlining it.

The Headlong production of A View From The Bridge

As for Rodolpho,  Luke Newberry plays him as artistic, sensitive and passionate, but without any obvious sign of him being gay. Like the modern American he aspires to be, Rodolpho sees the value in the virtues of compromise and forgiveness.

By contrast, his brother Marco, in a beautifully restrained performance by Tommy Sim’aan, is strong and silent except for the moment when he dramatically takes centre stage to show Eddie who is the alpha male.

The conflict between the rule of law and the code of the Italian community is another major theme. And Eddie’s self-inflicted downfall comes from his breach of the code, and his recourse to the law. This makes the part of the lawyer Alfieri pivotal in raising questions about the limits of the law in providing justice, particularly in a community which in the past has sorted out its own forms of justice. Nancy Crane takes on this role, possibly the first time a woman has played the part. She is authoritative and sympathetic, in a way appropriate to someone who is also a narrator-cum-Greek chorus, a role designed to remind us that we are outsiders viewing the unfolding tragedy.

The austere set by Moi Tran comprises a claustrophobic shiny black wall and stage, with an oppressive neon sign saying Red Hook, the name of the neighbourhood, that might have looked good in an art gallery but was over the top for this family drama. A staircase and high walkway are a further indication of how low this family are. The main props are a number of wooden chairs. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time to make the chairs double as the heavy bales the longshoremen carry, but it didn’t really work.

I regret I have one more criticism to make of the directing. During the final moving final tableau, a very large member of the cast stands at the front of the stage, blocking the view of a significant part of the audience. This is frankly unforgivable.

Having got that off my chest, let me say that, generally, Holly Race Roughan has put together a decent version of A View From The Bridge. It has light and shade, variations of pace, and dollops of tension. But, if the creative team had done less, they could have achieved more.

A View From The Bridge opened at Octagon Theatre Bolton on 8 September 2023. It can be seen at Chichester Festival Theatre until  28 October and at Rose Theatre from 31 October to 11 November 2023.

Paul was given a review ticket by the theatre.

Watch this review on the YouTube channel Theatre Reviews With Paul Seven

The Two Popes – touring – review

★★★

Production photo from The Two Popes at Rose Theatre near London showing Nicholas Woodeson holding Anton Lesser in September 2022
Nicholas Woodeson & Anton Lesser in The Two Popes. Photo: Manuel Harlan

If like me, you have little knowledge of the Roman Catholic Church and even less interest in it, you might think an evening with not one but two popes would be akin to a visit to the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, this combative conversation between Pope Benedict XVI, who abdicated in 2013, and Pope Francis, who replaced him, is both intriguing and amusing.

It helps that one is deeply conservative and the other highly liberal, so there is plenty of room for conflict. It helps even more that these two contrasting kings of Catholicism are played by two sovereigns of the stage, Anton Lesser and Nicholas Woodeson.

Benedict XVI’s abdication was almost unprecedented. (I say ‘almost’, because a pope did abdicate 700 years previously.) Anthony McCarten’s play about this conservative German and his successor, the liberal Argentinian Cardinal Bergoglio, was first produced by Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre in 2019, before Covid intervened. Their Artistic Director James Dacre directs this revived co-production, which I saw at the Rose Theatre in Kingston before its tour to a number of regional theatres.

Mr McCarten, who previously wrote The Theory Of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody as well as the film version of this play, recently penned The Collaboration. It’s another play about two people with contrasting characters and views, the artists Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was very enjoyable and is now on its way to Broadway following a run at the Young Vic.

You can see why the idea of a meeting between these two very different popes intrigued Anthony McCarten. The facts of the transfer of power are true but the details of what conversations may have taken place come from his fertile imagination.

The two popes don’t get together straightaway. Initially, we meet each of them separately, beginning with Pope Benedict played by Anton Lesser. We find him in his apartment with a German nun, played by Lynsey Beachamp. They share a conservative nostalgia for their country of birth that manifests itself in the food they eat and the German whodunit series that they watch enthusiastically on TV. He moves stiffly, conveying both old age and, metaphorically, a rigidity of views. Mr Lesser has a clipped but silky way of speaking, that conveys both authority and warmth. The warmth is important because he is publicly perceived as ‘God’s rottweiler’. The reality is, we learn, that he is more shy than cold, more a scholar than a front man. He didn’t want the job of Pope and he still doesn’t.

Without this insight into Benedict’s human side, this would be a very one-sided play between a cold fish and the warm human being that is Cardinal Bergoglio. We meet the latter on a visit to a slum church in his home country of Argentina. Played by Nicholas Woodeson, he has an impish smile and bounces round the stage like a Duracell bunny. He too chats with a nun, played by Leaphia Darko, but this time about his liberal views, which appeal to the poor of the developing world. Ironically, he too wants to retire from his job.

Although they are as different as The Telegraph and The Guardian, Pope Benedict is aware that the Cardinal is his likely successor, and that he can prevent this from happening simply by accepting the Cardinal’s resignation. He decides to meet him and check him out.

The first meeting is very much a clash of views, which frankly I found a little tedious, but I suspect someone more interested in the Catholic Church might find it fascinating.

Anton Lesser & Nicholas Woddeson in The Two Popes. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The second act really takes off, as the two find out that despite their differences, what they have in common may be what is important. We know the outcome so it’s not exactly edge-of-your-seat stuff but the exchanges are funny at times, interesting at others, and sometimes quite moving, as when the two confess their weaknesses and shortcomings. It is a joy to see the interaction between these two great actors.

The set, designed Jonathan Fensom, comprises an artificial proscenium arch onto which a marble surface and the scene locations are projected- in Latin! This reinforces that what is happening is contained within the solidity of a church that has been around for two thousand years. So maybe these two popes, while appearing to be taking the church from one extreme to another, merely represent a natural adjustment that has and will take place again and again over time.

The Two Popes is at the Rose Theatre until 23 September 2022 and will then tour to Cambridge Arts Theatre (27 September-1 October), Cheltenham Everyman (4-8 October), Northampton Royal & Derngate (11-15 October), Oxford Playhouse (18-22 October) and Theatre Royal Bath (25-29 October).

Paul was given a complimentary review ticket by the producers.

Click here to watch this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews