THEATRE : Chronicle of a death foretold

A View from the Bridge Bristol Old Vic
David Thacker's revival of A View from the Bridge exerts an unforgettably powerful grip from its opening moments. To a hauntingly mournful harmonica theme, a shaft of light pierces the gloom and picks out Alfieri (Alan MacNaughtan), the play's lawyer-narrator, high up the stairway. Shelagh Keegan's design imparts to these Brooklyn tenements some of the lonely, receding mystery of a painting by De Chirico. In the bluish murk of the middle distance, a bunch of longshoremen are pitching coins. A mood of pained hindsight is swiftly established.

Arthur Miller's play famously focuses on a man who is driven by sexual jealousy to an act of betrayal (informing on his wife's illegal immigrant Sicilian relatives to the authorities), and it's possible to feel that the lawyer-narrator is an embarrassing choric intrusion, prodding you into perceptions you'd rather reach alone. But by having this figure on stage at his desk all the way through, instead of tripping on and off, Thacker's production helps create a strong sense of the appalled, powerless foreknowledge the lawyer recalls having felt. "If I seem to tell this like a dream," Alfieri says late on, "it was that way", and the production makes his claim good.

Not that the scenes of family strain and sexual disturbance aren't communicated in all their rocky immediacy; Emer McCourt, for example, most touchingly conveys the newly acquired nubility and painfully divided loyalties of Catherine, Eddie's niece. But Thacker has introduced touches which heighten one's premonitions of doom. For example, there's a scene in which Catherine finds herself alone in the house for the first time with Joseph Fiennes's Rodolpho, whose guileless feminine charms are so wilfully misinterpreted by the jealous Eddie. By this stage of the game, the outcome of any unchaperoned meeting is bound to be tragic from the moment Eddie discovers it. This is brought home here by having him literally overshadow the couple's private scene, visibly slumped on a staircase outside, tipsy with Christmas whisky and choc-full of dangerous misery.

In the role of Eddie, Bernard Hill is magnificent, partnered by an equally impressive Charlotte Cornwell as his wife. Hill has, for a start, the right thickening, stocky build for a longshoreman just past his first strength. He also signals beautifully the confused sensitivity that's buried under the tough surface.

In the middle of the play, the triumphant, raised-eyebrows obduracy with which he pounces on the slightest hint that Rodolpho could be gay is comic in its impact. This slides, though, into the horrible blindness of tragedy as Eddie, who has violated the tribal codes of the Sicilian-American community by his betrayal, none the less persists in presenting himself as the offended party. When Eddie's wife hits him with the truth that it is sexual jealousy not principled protectiveness that has prompted the betrayal, Hill's hands shoot in dazed, horrified denial to his temples. But then, brilliantly, he converts this gesture into a macho, hair-sleeking exercise, a moment of vertiginous self-doubt, wilfully warped into cocky self-assertion.

Like Michael Gambon in Alan Ayckbourn's 1987 production, Hill confirms A View from the Bridge as a play that manages to elicit tragic awe, even though (as in Coriolanus), the hero's self-sacrificing integrity runs on a quite misguided track.

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Paul Taylor

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