Such is the power of Ivo van Hove’s minimalist and utterly superb production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, which tells the tale of Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong) and the tragic consequences of his obsession with his teenage niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox).
Tension is the lifeblood of this masterclass of a show, which updates Miller’s classic one act drama to the status of nerve-shredding thriller. It’s built up slowly and almost imperceptibly with each passing minute until the devastating denouement rips it apart in a prolonged moment of beautiful horror.
Every detail is calculated to make the audience uncomfortably aware that the something bad, whatever it is, is on its way and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. The use of sound to create this atmosphere of dread is so clever that you don’t at first notice it’s happening. Throughout the play there’s a continuous soundtrack of almost Soviet sounding incidental music, which is anything but incidental. As the tension begins to build, the volume is varied and, at key moments, a single drum bangs out a heartbeat at varying tempos. As the show reaches its climax an achingly beautiful, soaring, hymn-like chorus rings out - reinforcing the inescapable truth that everything has been building to that moment and celebrating the breaking of the crushing tension.
By contrast, the dialogue in the show seems sparse and lengthy silences become almost a character in their own right. Silence in a theatre is tense almost by nature, except in really terrible shows (*cough* Stephen Ward *cough*), and the way the silences are held here is intense. In one scene, where the full cast are on stage having what can best be summarised as an awkward family chat, it was notable how the audience began to fill the silences themselves with increasingly nervous laughter. Anything to break that tension.
As well as the contrast between sound and silence, the production also exploits the contrasts in its bleak colour scheme. The black wall and white floor provide the only backdrop - there are no props - and the palette of costumes is earthy neutrals and muddy greens. There’s a naturalness to this colour scheme which sits very much at odds with the unsettling starkness of the black and white set. Again, this contrast between natural characters and unnatural set adds to the increasingly alarming sense of something awful about to happen.
The final building block in this wall of tension is the small cast, who are without exception utterly captivating. Special mention must go to Mark Strong, who is extraordinary as Eddie - so sure of his conviction that he’s doing what’s best that you begin to believe him, even though every bone in your body is screaming that he’s wrong, and so still and measured that when he does lash out or lose his cool it’s genuinely shocking (another effective use of contrast).
The moment where the tension is finally broken is one of the most powerful, striking moments of theatre I’ve ever seen. Instead of showing the climatic fight scene in a traditional way, van Hove has his cast - all of them, because everyone is culpable in this final, inevitable, tragedy - freeze in a rugby scrum-esque pose whilst a torrent of ‘blood’ falls on them from the ceiling. As the final music swells and the bare foot cast struggle to stay upright, the torrent keeps on pouring. And keeps on pouring. And keeps on pouring, until the bright white floor is red and the actors are dripping in blood. It’s beautiful and horrible simultaneously; the release of the tension is a relief but an awful one and the overall effect (on me at least) of yet another jarring contrast was a flood of tears. I don’t cry in the theatre very often, which is odd given I cry all the time otherwise, so this is a big deal! That final image will be seared on my brain for some time to come.
A View from the Bridge is at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 11th March. Ticket availability is limited so move fast if you want to see it. It’s getting the NT Live treatment on March 26th.