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The Intensity of the Miller’s Tale.

January 31, 2011

Brooklyn Bridge dominates the whole borough, physically and in other ways. Its bulk sends shadows over tenements and waterfront alike; it’s the path of escape to the lights of Manhattan and the wider world – and it bestrides the waterways that bring the world to America, and strangers to Brooklyn.

It’s apposite then that Arthur Miller’s work about family and incomers, America and the world, certainty and confusion, welcome and rejection, should have the title ‘View from the Bridge’. Looking down on the carefully contained world of Brooklyn’s Italian district,in the 1950s, you can detect everything from family strength to criminal aggression. The world is changing for everyone, but most of all for longshoreman Eddie Carbone, whose ninteen year old niece is leaving school, starting a job, and stepping out from his apparently fatherly influence.

The arrival of family relatives, Rodolpho and Marco, as illegal immigrants from Italy, brings the dramatic tension that drives the play and highlights the thin line between certainty and doubt, protection and enslavement, or, as in McCarthy era America, patriotism and witch hunt.

This was a truly great John Dove production at the Lyceum in Edinburgh, with power, tenderness, nuanced performances, and an unfailing ability to shock and make you think in equal measure.

The revolving set, as stunning as we’ve come to expect at this venue, represents effectively the claustrophobia of working class Brooklyn – whether on the dingy street or in the threadbare apartment where we watch a family falling apart. The shipyard cranes loom in the distance, a reminder not only of Eddie’s work but of the river that feeds the constantly changing population of this borough – the gateway to what is perceived to be the promised land.

The cast put not a foot wrong – no mean feat in a play where high emotions always hover on the edge of melodrama, and big characters continually compete for our attention. Stanley Townsend, scarcely off stage at all as Eddie Carbone, looms over this production with a frightening intensity, moving from avuncular to threatening, comfortable to bewildered, in arresting manner, till the audience don’t know whether they pity him or hate him. His success is complemented by an excellent performance from Kathryn Howden as his wife Beatrice, torn between loyalty and despair at his antics. She conjures up in a fine restrained approach the mixture of rage and acceptance that recalls the lot of such wives in those times. Their niece, Catherine, is affectingly portrayed by RSAMD student, Kirsty Mackay in a forceful demonstration of coming of age, which never overplays the ingenue, but evokes the sheer confusion wreked by her long dependence on her overbearing uncle and the shock of falling in love with newcomer Rodolpho.

The newcomers in the house -‘submarines’ because they have arrived ‘underwater’ – are crucial to the drive of the play: Gunnar Cauthery makes a handsome and credible Rodolpho, bringing obvious and hitherto unsuspected rock and roll glamour into Catherine’s heart, the whiff of the dangerous and the passion of the liberated youth. HIs brother, the older and more responsible Marco, is ultimately the real harbinger of doom. It’s a brooding performance from Richard Conlon, which I hugely enjoyed, having taught him at school in the 1980s. Such was the power of his performance that I’ve completely forgiven him for hanging on to the stripey blazer I loaned him to play Sky Masterton in a school production all those years ago!

Finally, a word for LIam Brennan whose role as commentator/lawyer contributed hugely to atmosphere and tension, and for Lynn Bains, who, as accent coach, helped the principals function credibly in that Italian/Brooklyn patois – without ever descending into the caricature.

My own grandfather spent four years working on the Brooklyn trolleys in the 1890s, en route to Edinburgh from Ireland. I left the Lyceum on Friday evening with a new understanding of the pressures on emigrants and the sacrifices made. Most of all though, what remained was a searing image of the games families play, and the pressures that lie on their shoulders.

It certainly impacted on one couple who were having a right old ding dong in the front stalls as we left the auditorium! Thanks again to the Lyceum and company for an emotional and highly satisfying night in the theatre. There’s nothing quite like live drama, and nobody captures the drama of life quite as well as Arthur Miller.

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