Nearly ten years ago, I was studying for my GCSEs. That is a scary enough fact in itself. I can’t believe it’s been nearly a DECADE since I sat those exams – I still feel like I’m about 19 at times, so to be (whisper it) mid-20s is a terrifying thought! As part of our English syllabus we studied a whole variety of topics, ranging from Of Mice and Men (god awful and depressing), to pre-20th century love poetry (toe-curlingly embarassing – I will never hear the phrase ‘vegetable love’ without simultaneously sniggering and cringing), to The Woman in Black and The Others (we rewatched those films so much that they were no longer scary). But one of my favourites, and one that stuck with me ever since, was the Arthur Miller play A View From the Bridge. Set in 1950s New York, the characters hail from an Italian-American community living in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge and struggling to maintain their foothold in American society. Longshoreman Eddie Carbone makes an honest living on the docks and prides himself by being fair and hardworking. When he and his wife Beatrice agree to take in Beatrice’s illegal immigrant cousins, Marco and Rodolpho, fresh off the boat from Italy, Eddie’s world quickly becomes compromised when Rodolpho shows an interest in his young niece, 17 year old Catherine. Eddie’s own feelings for Catherine are complicated – an intense love bordering on the creepy and wrong – and his jealousy proves the undoing of all he has worked so hard to cultivate.
I really enjoyed this play when we read it at school, and as we never saw a stage or TV version of it, when I discovered that this was playing in the West End for a limited run after a successful season at the Young Vic, (and that Mark Strong of Sherlock Holmes and Kingsman fame was starring as Eddie), I snapped up tickets like a venus fly trap snaps up flies.
Because Jon isn’t very good with heights, we elected for the on-stage seating, as we couldn’t guarantee how high up we might be sitting in the theatre otherwise. But it was actually a brilliant decision. When we arrived, we were directed up a tiny little staircase at the side of the stage to the wings, where benches had been set up on each side for the audience members lucky enough to be sitting there. We were told to switch our phones completely off, so there would be no distracting lights or vibrations going off during the performance, and were guided to our set bench. These were sideways on to the rest of the audience, but we were incredibly close to the action and if you were in the front row you could have, at some points, reached out and touched the actors. I will admit that the benches weren’t the most comfortable seats ever. After a while I got quite restless, and was shifting about trying to get comfy. Ben and Jon had similar complaints. However, the view of the performance and the play itself were brilliant enough to compensate.
The setting is very minimalist and modern. The action revolves around a house, the front of the house and a lawyer’s office. The stage doesn’t reflect any of this; there is no furniture, no backdrop, no props. The characters don’t change costumes, and the only specials effects are the use of a shower at the start (anyone wishing to see Mark Strong topless, you will get your chance), and another, rather spectacular, effect at the end of the play (I can’t say any more for fear of spoiler alert!)
The cast are exceptional. There are only a few characters in the story: Eddie, Beatrice, Catherine, Marco, Rodolpho, Alfieri (a lawyer and narrator), and Louie, one of the other longshoremen. Each plays their part wonderfully, each with their own cross to bear and each one on a path to a fate they cannot prevent. The whole play seems to focus on the sense of the inevitable, of something sinister lurking out of sight around the corner which cannot be discovered until it is too late. I didn’t recognise any of the other actors in the play besides Mark Strong and Nicola Walker (Beatrice), but all were outstanding. Catherine was naive and childlike, unwilling to break away from the close relationship she has with Eddie until the very end, even when a part of her knows that it’s wrong. Beatrice was kindhearted but weary, desperate to salvage her marriage but trapped between her love for her niece and her love for her husband and unsure of how to act for the best. Alfieri was sad and reflective, but ultimately more detached in the narration than in his actual portrayal, which was also desperate. It seems that half the cast know where this will end, and the play is their frantic efforts to hold back the tide. And finally Eddie. Tormented, blinded by feelings he doesn’t understand, and fiercely overprotective. Mark Strong, as with the rest of the cast, does a stellar job.
Ben and Jon had never read the play before, and they left the theatre slightly stunned. I remember hearing the audience gasp at several of the more dramatic points in the play, which I had forgotten until they happened. It made me smile to hear them going through that same rollercoaster that I experienced, aged 15. And I thoroughly recommend that you embark on this journey too. You won’t be disappointed, but you will be affected. It is profoundly powerful, and will stay with you. I suspect that, having stuck with me for 9 years, this play will stick with me for the rest of my days.
I leave you with a question that presents itself throughout the play, and which lingers in your mind afterwards: Is it possible to love someone too much?
A View From the Bridge runs until 11th April at the Wyndhams Theatre. You can read more about it and book tickets here.