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First Nighter: Ivo van Hove's "View From the Bridge" View, David Hare's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" Gaze

02/24/2015 08:04 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

London--What can ordinarily be objectionable about Ivo van Hove's too often juvenile look-at-me directing is that he thinks it's innovative to play up a script's subtext. That, of course, is just what writers don't want done. It's called "subtext," for the blaring reason it's meant to remain sub.

For his highly effective and somewhat radical view of Arthur Miller's View From the Bridge--at Wyndham's after its sell-out Young Vic stay--he's done something different, however. Knowing that Miller shaped it as a contemporary Greek tragedy, he presents it as such. Resume breathing: He doesn't go so far as masks.

But he uses no conventional set. Rather, he's had his regular designer Jan Versweyveld construct a plain square playing area surrounded by a low, transparent wall fitted within a high black box. He places part of the audience to the right and left of the box, giving the loose impression of an ancient theater.

More than that, and, okay, more in line with the subtext-revealing so dear to van Hove's directing heart, he takes the notion of boxing--which going-haywire longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong) introduces two-thirds of the way through the now 155-minute intermissionless version--and implies that the characters, often sitting in one or more of the four corners, are competitors in a ring.

Stripped to its bare bones in this manner, the play does acquire the twist he suggests in a program note that Miller would appreciate were he to living today. (Where he gets off making this brash assumption beats me.) The reason his bold approach works, of course, is that the acting is in line with the naturalism Miller did bank on. The point, it should be needless to say, is that all plays worth their salt--and A View From the Bridge is nothing if not salty--should work without benefit of set and other accouterments.

Van Hove's only substantial departures from Miller are the beginning and end. At the start, when black walls are slowly raised and lawyer/Greek chorus Alfieri (Michael Gould) begins his ominous discourse, Eddie and pal/co-worker Louis (Richard Hansell) are showering--with the water conjuring a baptismal cleansing as it disappears down a drain on the floor. About the finish, I won't say more than it's a can't-look-at-can't-turn-away-from coup de theatre somewhat the obverse of the opening image.

The story is a painful one. It's Eddie's undoing when wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker; I saw understudy Samantha Coughlan) gives shelter to illegal immigrant relatives. They're quietly brooding Marco (Emun Elliott) and eager young and blond Rodolpho (Luke Norris). Eddie and Beatrice's young ward Catherine (Phoebe Fox) fall for each other, and the development unhinges Eddie, who has eyes for Catherine but won't cop to it.

While too much obvious religious music underscores just about all the action--Tom Gibbons supplies it, undoubtedly because van Hove insisted--the acting initially seems turgid but kicks in as tragedy mounts. Exempt from any negative criticism, though, is Strong. From the get-go, he clearly knows exactly what Eddie Carbone is about. Talk about naturalistic acting, here it is in full force. Whereas other cast members are filling their roles well, Strong's Eddie just inexorably is who he is.
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While Miller is looking of the tragedies occurring in the shadow of a bridge over a lower-class Brooklyn neighborhood, playwright David Hare and director Rufus Norris (soon to take over National Theatre reins from Nicholas Hytner) are focusing a close-up camera on the impoverished Annawadi area in the shadow of the Mumbai airport. Their Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a sprawling adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo's unflinching Random House book bearing the same title. (The production will be broadcast live from the National on March 12.)

By the way, I don't use the popular adjective "sprawling" simply to describe the physical layout on the hugely accommodating Olivier stage. Yes, it certainly is that from the instant the play begins, and even before. As the audience enters, the site is a desolate area at the back of which are a series of battered and graffiti-laden walls designer Katrina Lindsay has provided.

In front of the walls the stage is littered with refuse, and in a burst of choreographed frenzy a group of actors race around collecting the items and stuffing them in the plastic bags they carry. This is Hare and Norris instantly making manifest the only source of income the indigenous citizens have,

It's quickly explained that the frantic crowd divides into two groups: pickers, who go about this dirty business honestly, and thieves, who break into prohibited areas to gather items, like metal scraps, that fetch more money when turned into dealers.

Abdul Husain (Shane Zaza) is one such dealer. It's his story and the story of his family as they become caught in a fatal clash with another family that serves as the primary plot. It's through this event that Boo at first and now Hare and Norris spread the news about an ignored population. Think of it as an elaboration on the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire.

Working with a scale on which he weighs the bits and pieces brought him, Abdul is relatively richer than those around him. It's a position his aggressive mother Zehrunisa (Meera Syal) exploits. One of her victims is crippled tenant Fatima Shaikh (Thusitha Jayasundera), who, as the tale unfolds, attempts suicide by setting herself on fire. Her plan is to blame the Husains for driving her to such an extreme.

In a not especially subtle ploy, Abdul's oversized scale is often hoisted above him, thereby hanging as a reminder of the scales of justice. And justice for the poor Annawadi people is the major theme here. Will the Husains--Abdul, his father Karma (Vincent Ebrahim) and sister (Anjli Mohindra) are all eventually arrested and maltreated--meet a just end. Will anyone in a system shown systematically as blatantly corrupt meet a just end?

But back to that sense of a sprawling piece of circus-y work. It's the textual sprawl getting to Boo's point that both draws spectators to the production and distances them. Often the subsidiary stories threaten to undermine the production's overall effect. Often director Norris's love of staging things like parades and other festivities suggests that a certain amount of self-indulgence has taken over.

Nevertheless, the ensemble acting is astonishing. Even more compelling is the extended glimpse of a too often dismissed subculture. That's what overrides any objections here.