7th April, 2015
Alfieri: ‘I saw it was only a passion that had moved into his body, like a stranger.’
Marco: ‘In my country [Eddie] would be dead now.’
The play’s title is the perspective of most self-styled and indifferent New Yorkers, for whom the Italian immigrant community in the 1950s slum of Red Hook is merely a view from the Brooklyn Bridge. The tragedy of the protagonist plays out: Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong) – a respected Brooklyn longshoreman with a questionable love for his niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox. Here ‘the gullet of New York is swallowing the tonnage of the world.’ Our guide /Chorus is the philosophical lawyer Alfieri (beautifully played by Michael Gould ) sets a tone of tragic inevitability from the outset. Alfieri introduces Eddie: ‘This one’s name was Eddie Carbone,’ speaking about him in the past tense shows that his fate has already come to an end and gives an indication that Eddie will die at the end of the play, so the audience are left wondering not what will happen to him but how it will happen. The experimental Belgian director, Ivo van Hove describes the play as ‘witnessing a car accident that you see a hundred metres before it happens.’
Many of the huge Italian community are supporting and hiding immigrants from their homeland who are fleeing the destruction and poverty of post-war Italy for a new life in America. Yet, when Eddie’s wife, Beatrice (Nicola Walker), volunteers to shelter her distant cousins, Marco (Emun Elliott) and Rodolfo (Luke Norris) who have just arrived secretly on the ships, Eddie’s control of his household is destroyed. The catalyst is Rudolfo who gains the affections of Catherine. The decision not to have Rodolpho and Marco speak with heavy Italian accents (they sound just as American as the other cast members) seems odd at first given that some of their lines obviously call for it. But it restores to the characters some extra dignity, levelling the playing field between the immigrants and the rest of Brooklyn. Tensions bubble and wry humour derives from Eddie’s fixation on Rodolpho’s sexuality, constantly telling Beatrice and Alfieri that Rodolpho ‘ain’t right,’ and in a (misguided) attempt to prove this, he forcefully kisses Rodolpho in front of Catherine.
From the outset, Eddie’s tactile relationship with his niece 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. Catherine’s short skirt sexualises our perceptions of a boundary which may have been crossed. Our suspicions are further fuelled when Beatrice further hints something is awry as she remonstrates that Eddie has neglected their sexual relationship. Nicola Walker conveys her repressed anger, jealousy and fear very convincingly. Yet, like many Miller tragic heroes, Eddie is a good-hearted man and proxy father with a fatal flaw.
Spoiler alert: Eddie Carbone informs on two illegal immigrants. Miller based the events on a story a lawyer friend had told him about two illegal immigrants being shopped to the authorities by the uncle of a girl who had become engaged to one of them. I recalled Marlon Brando’s mesmerising performance in On the Waterfront, which had its premiere in 1954, a year before Miller’s play. It has a similar whistleblowing theme – a boxer turned longshoreman g finally finds the moral strength to expose corrupt mobster practices in his union.
Maintaining the code of society and keeping a good name before the world are crucial to people like Eddie and Marco. Eddie has betrayed their relatives as much as he has Beatrice’s, and their brief appearance marks him down as an outcast, just like Vinny Bolzano. Both characters are shocked and frustrated when they find out that the law does not support them; Eddie when he wants to stop Rodolfo from marrying Catherine and Marco when he wants revenge on Eddie. What they see as the noble and honourable course of action (preventing marriage, avenging family dishonour) is in fact not within the law. The law therefore goes against their traditional codes of honour.
Through Alfieri’s advice about the extent and limitations of the law, we see that what is legal is not always what is just, and what is illegal is not always what is unjust.
I do feel that John Proctor’s cry for maintaining his good name and reputation in The Crucible more convincing than Eddie’s demand for the restoration of his. When Marco (lifts the symbolic chair in muscular supremacy over Eddie the denouement is sealed.
Designer Jan Versweyveld offers the universality of an almost bare stage, with a playing area – sense of imprisonment which I suspect had more intensity in the Young Vic when this production was first staged. Sometimes I find Miller’s plays on one level, excessively preachy, and this production is austerely stylised, but it works and the tone is spot-on here.
Music purists may find the constant rumbling of Tom Gibbons’ sound design of the Requiem Mass overbearing but its repetitive strains add the claustrophobic atmosphere of foreboding.
The opening and closing tableaux are especially remarkable, perfectly book ending a production rooted in realism with symbolic and atmospheric visuals that are as meaningful as they are poetic. The blood drenched like a Caravaggio painting, is a silent collapse at the climax of the play. All the while, Michael Gould’s Alfieri, Eddie’s lawyer and confidante, looks on, horrified, crumpled, sometimes even curled up in the foetal position in the corner; a reminder, always, of the coming calamity.
It is an interval-free production, performed with virtually no props (when one does appears, like a chair, the moment is held for a deliberately long time), its cast circumnavigating the stage barefoot. Just wonderful to spotlight the psychological drama without peripheral special stage effects to which we are growing accustomed.