Arthur Miller makes us laugh. Then things get dark.
The Gate Theatre, 8.9.15 – 10.10.15
Arthur Miller isn’t a name we associate with comedy. Characters like Willy Loman may be ridiculous, but are patently tragic, while Miller’s contempt for society’s sacred cows was vented more through righteous anger and allegory than ridicule. So why do the first few scenes of A View From the Bridge, currently playing in the Gate, feel like a social realist take on Married With Children?
It’s not as if the cast are unduly playing for giggles – rather, the easy dialogue between longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Scott Aiello), his wife Beatrice (Niamh McCann) and his orphaned niece Catherine (Lauren Coe) seems designed by Miller to lull us into complacency. Far from the immediately off-kilter settings of The Crucible and Death of a Salesman, this a warm and recognisable family making do with everything life throws at them. The imminent illegal arrival of Beatrice’s cousins Marco (Peter Coonan) and Rodolpho (Joey Philips), and the Carbone’s decision to harbour them, seems like yet another example of that. It’s an example of their own relatable moral code trumping the law, and feels like fodder for a decent sitcom episode.
At first, of course, there’s no sign of a tragic turn: Eddie is bemused by Rodolpho (if anything, his performance is the closest to clowning at the outset of this production), and amusingly irked by the mutual attraction between the younger man and Catherine. Plenty of laughs ensue but, by the end of Act 1, his dislike has started to fester and we’re headed in a very dark direction.
It’s at the inflection point between comedy and conflict, when Eddie’s antipathy to Rudolpho turns visceral and unreasonable, that Miller’s play and this production shine. Eddie Carbone’s demonstrated decency has us inwardly excusing his behaviour until we simply can’t. By then, of course, he’s sown the seeds for tragedy. The unhealthy pseudo-marital relationship with his niece, and the impact this is having on his real marriage, is also obvious. Eddie may think that his life before Marco and Rudolpho’s arrival was ideal, but the dynamics powering the conflict and tragedy after the intermission were present before the curtain came up. The arrival of a sweet-talking, somewhat effete young man to charm Catherine was a mere catalyst to an inevitable explosion.
The cast are able to convey this with rare subtlety, showing genuinely good people falling into destructive behaviour gradually rather than through sudden uncharacteristic moves. They also tackle the taboos that Miller’s play raises deftly, when a lesser production may have strayed into melodrama. Probably the best example of this comes with a rare monologue from Catherine, which hints that the quasi-marital dynamic cuts both ways – even if she doesn’t have the sexualised obsession that Eddie demonstrates. This kind of speech lends itself to awkwardness or outright hamminess, but Coe plays it superbly. Also noteworthy is Beowulf Boritt’s set: physically intruding on the auditorium, it draws us into the world of the docks, and maintains a visual reminder of this environment even in the Carbone’s living room.
The production’s primary failing really stems from the text and story itself. As our lawyer narrator Alfieri (Bosco Hogan) volunteers, the story has a sense of crushing inevitability after a certain point. With that comes predictability. The jealousy turning to obsession, betrayal and explosive conflict – leading thus to tragedy – never surprises. After the interval, we’re watching a car crash proceed in slow motion without any real sense that this could pan out any other way. Well acted it may be but, without any real doubt about what’s to come, the play inevitably loses some interest in the second half.
Short of butchering one of Miller’s better plays, it’s hard to see what director Joe Dowling could have done to address this. Prospective audiences probably should not go expecting a thrill-filled two and a half hours. Rather, this is a fine production of a very human and intriguing tragedy, with some unfortunately predictable elements.