Considering the reputation that accompanies Ivo van Hove the first thing to be said about his production of Arthur Miller’s famous play is that it’s more restrained than might have been expected. This is not to suggest that it is performed in the shadows of the play’s reputation but rather that van Hove has created a singular work of such potency that despite stripping away external features and focusing intently on the performances, it retains the power of the great naturalistic dramas.
Van Hove is a director that appears to relish the challenge of recasting great works in a new light; he is happy to cross cultural mediums and recent work includes the Antonioni Project, which re-enacted the Italian director’s films, and a highly-lauded adaptation of Strindberg’s Scenes from a Marriage. He has demonstrated a desire to bring new perspectives to classic works and this reached its peak with the hugely ambitious Roman Tragedies, which came to the Barbican in 2009. The production brought together Shakespeare’s roman plays and pulled them in to the modern era through an immersive multimedia spectacle that captured the increasingly symbiotic relationship between news and drama in the age of 24-hour reporting.
He is also happy working with the great American playwrights having previously staged Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams in New York and now brings Arthur Miller to London. The influence of the director is clear from the moment the audience enters; Van Hove has used the flexibility of the Young Vic’s auditorium to physically conceal the entire set within a black box. Indeed the raising and eventual sealing of the stage suggests a symbolic entombing of the story and hints to its timeless nature.
The production strips away all hints of naturalism from the setting. It exists as a stark, white rectangle surrounded by a glass bench. The only prop being a wooden chair that forms the essential test of strength between Eddie and Marco; van Hove recognises its significance and frames Marco holding the chair aloft in a moment of absolute stillness. It is reminiscent of a classical sculpture and is one of a number of markers that draw out the links to Greek tragedy that Miller hinted at within the text.
The lack of a setting inevitably directs greater attention towards the actors, and they are uniformly excellent. Van Hove has drawn highly stylised performances out of his cast without losing the grounding in naturalism that is essential for demonstrating the characters’ humanity and for capturing the emotionally draining tragedy that lurks in the background throughout.
There is an expressionistic quality to the performances that adds a strand of universalism to the highly specific nature of the plot. Whilst the story of Italian migrants and working-class longshoremen places it within a time and place, this production leaves the audience in no doubt that the deeper themes are those that have always been with us.
It is anchored by a performance of exceptional power by Mark Strong as Eddie Carbone. He brings a natural physicality to the role that tells a story of sinewy strength rather than bullish power; the famous description of ‘eyes like tunnels’ is entirely apt for his Eddie, this is no knuckle-headed docker, but a man of complexity and internal conflict. We sense that behind those eyes is a torrent of raging emotions that he is intelligent enough to recognise but too inarticulate to express.
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