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The piercing design of Broadway's A View From the Bridge
Just a little over five years ago, Scarlett Johansson won a Tony Award for her performance in a revival of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge, so it might seem surprising that the family drama set in 1950s Red Hook is already back on Broadway. Except this new production, a transfer from the West End helmed by acclaimed Belgian director Ivo van Hove, is an entirely different beast from previous incarnations.
The audience knows the view is going to be fresh when the show begins with the four walls of Eddie Carbone's home rising up in the air, revealing a stark white floor and pristine Lucite benches inside. Designer Jan Versweyveld intentionally wanted to give the impression of a house being lifted up by its roof so that we can peek on what's happening inside.
Creatively mired by the naturalistic stage directions in Miller's script, Versweyveld, who is credited with both sets and lighting in this production, found himself contemplating the nature of the title. "I was fantasizing about what [Miller] means by 'view,'" he says. "It's like an overview. You lift up a rock when you're walking in the woods and see what's underneath, the creatures living underneath. And then you put the rock back in its place."
From that, Versweyveld and van Hove, who have collaborated on all of van Hove's productions, came to the conclusion that their show would eschew all props and costume changes. In fact, none of the characters do much of anything; there are no pantomimed scenes of washing dishes, no brownstone stoops for contemplative conversations. Instead, Miller's tale of obsessive love and betrayal and the American Dream is performed at full speed without an intermission or any distraction from the brutality of its language. Forced to confront why he feels so passionately about his niece (Phoebe Fox), Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong) takes his frustrations out on the blonde, Italian immigrant (Russell Tovey) who has captured her heart, while his horrified wife (Nicola Walker) looks on. These creatures under the rock that Miller has disturbed are on a collision course with tragedy.
"It's a very conceptual set, and I didn't see any reason to use color except for the human bodies in it," says Versweyveld. "It's the footprint of a Red Hook house, and we lift up the walls and see what's happening in the house. Also, of course, lifting up the box is also a great theme of Pandora's Box, which has a lot of potential danger and human misery coming out of it."
As Versweyveld points out, the play has several layers of meanings and subtext that can be buried beneath too naturalistic an approach; watching actors recreate the homey gestures of family life can too often distract from what they're saying—or trying to say. Not so with van Hove's interpretation of the characters, all of whom are painfully aware both of their limitations and of the restrictions placed on them by society and one another. If they are organisms caught under a microscope for the audience, they're studying one another just as intently beneath the bright lights of Versweyveld's design.
The set is made all the more luminescent by the Lyceum Theatre, where the show is scheduled to run through February 16. Versweyveld describes the Lyceum as "fantastic. It has a dark, golden brownish atmosphere, and it has a wider proscenium than the theatre in the West End." This adds heft to the decision to have audience members actually sit on the stage, ringing the action on three sides. In this space, Versweyveld says, "the public sitting on stage and in the orchestra and mezzanine is much better than it was. You have much more the feeling of the set being in the middle of the theatre."
Photos by Jan Versweyeld. Top photo: Mark Strong (center) and cast.