Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Van Hove's View: Finding a Contemporary Theatre

I first heard of director Ivo van Hove from a New Yorker article by Rebecca Mead, published back in October of 2015. Painted as a carrier of the avant-garde theatre tradition, van Hove was presented to me as a re-interpreter, a visionary. Since reading that article, I have wanted nothing more than to experience van Hove's work first-hand; and so I found myself at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, confronted with his interpretation of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge.

I first encountered this less-popular Miller work in college, when my acting professor decided she had to see me embody the role of Eddie Carbone, the Brooklyn longshoreman and over-protective guardian of his niece, Catherine. We did a few scenes in class. I had the sense I wasn't quite right for Eddie, but I couldn't put my finger on it. I now realize that, perhaps, my professor's interpretation of the play may have been off.

The revival on tour now, produced by Britain's Young Vic, begins with a Requiem, specifically the one by Gabriel Fauré. It's a recurring theme in the piece. To start a piece with a Requiem is to force the audience to ask the question, Who (or what) is dead? A View From the Bridge does not begin at a funeral; rather, in Ivo van Hove's version, it begins in what appears to be a sauna, with the lawyer Alfieri narrating over the image of two workers toweling off after a long shift. The homo-erotic nature of the image cannot be overlooked.

The conflicts of A View From the Bridge form a triangle. There is the discomfort of the potential for homosexuality in the mid-century. There is the problem of the over-protective father figure who may be too much in love with his ward. And, most resonant in the current socio-political environment, the various sides of the die that is illegal immigration.

It's been unavoidable lately, the topic of immigration. In the U.S., the battle cry has been clumsily raised by current Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, whose calls for building a wall, exclusion of people on religious grounds, and deportation of millions have rocked the lives of many around the world. A View From the Bridge humanizes all the players in that drama, forcing the audience to empathize with the struggles of the immigrants and those who protect them. According to Arthur Miller, the plot of the play is cribbed directly from a story told to him by a dockworker “who had known Eddie's prototype.” At the time the story was related to him, Miller says he decided not to write a play about it because it was complete already; there was nothing new to add. He thought better of it. Here was a story that needed telling.

In the author's preface to the Penguin edition, Miller notes that he was aware an austere staging was necessary for the play. At its debut, however, he felt that the creative team (himself included) was unable to deliver such a treatment, since none of them had the experience or training to do so. Ivo van Hove seems to have taken that football and run with it, so to speak, stripping the play down to its essence and forcing the audience to become the crowd that Miller thought was so vital to the initial London performance, staged by Peter Brook.

The set by van Hove's partner Jan Versweyveld is an opaque box as the audience filters in, like a magic trick waiting to be unleashed. Seating for the audience is provided on the stage on either side in addition to the usual seating in the house. When the Requiem begins, the box slowly ascends, revealing a space that somewhat resembles a boxing ring, complete, as we can now see, with ring-side seating. Joseph Melillo, the executive producer at BAM in New York, says in Rebecca Mead's article, “You really felt as though at any moment Eddie Carbone could come off that stage and grab your throat. It was, like, ‘Oh, my God, I am given license to be a witness to a murder. I am really going to see someone kill someone.’” The effect comes to full term when Eddie begins to teach Rodolfo how to box midway through the show. Ring side seats.

The box set reminds one of Schroedinger: With the box unopened, we cannot know the result of our experiment; with the box opened, we cannot help but affect the results, thereby rendering our experiment moot. The result is already known. Miller himself admits this. The audience's hope that things might turn out differently supplies the main tension of the play.

Time is also a character in van Hove's telling of this story; for, as Richard Schechner states in Between Theatre and Anthropology, Time and rhythm can be used in the same way as text, props, costumes, and the bodies of the performers and audience.” He is refering to ritualistic performance, but the same dictum could be applied to van Hove's View. Generally, the scenes are fast-paced, moving quickly from thesis to antithesis. As Mead says in her New Yorker article, “The production has a disquieting erotic intimacy and the hurtling pace of a thriller’s climax.” Everything slows down in the dinner scene, however, with the various actors sitting around the stage staring at each other. The scene set to a drum beat to give the feel of the clock ticking, the interminability of the awkward. The dance Schechner might be looking for exists in the silence between.

The drumming brings to mind Eastern theatre, particularly kabuki; A View From the Bridge fits the kabuki dictum that plays be about moral conflict in affairs of the heart. The actors in the ring play with bare feet (with the exception of the moment where Catherine is caught wearing heels to impress the newly-arrived Rodolfo). The use of specific repeated movements and gestures recalls the work of Jerzy Grotowski, whose Theatre Laboratory espoused the virtues of stripped-down storytelling in the theatre and blurring the lines between actor and spectator.

A particular moment that seems especially in the vein of Grotowski is when Catherine is trying to get Eddie to come to her wedding. She suddenly, out of anger or frustration, embraces him and beats his back repeatedly during her speech. The words are nearly irrelevant; it is the gesture which drives the play forward.

Other moments where time is manipulated include Marco's lifting of the chair to prove his strength against Eddie. As the chair is held aloft by Marco, the very bottom of one leg in his grasp, “Requiem √¶ternam” blares in full intensity, the players frozen in their positions. The audience is given a complete opportunity to take in this picture and all its implications, a moment echoed at the very end of the play.

Van Hove's work is not about creating some illusion of reality; rather, it is, as Tony Kushner says of him, to “make the audience confront the failure to create completely convincing illusions—and the power of the theatre is that failure to create convincing illusions. It is the creation of a double consciousness. Ivo’s impulse is to take that very seriously, and to ask the audience to collaborate in making this thing real.”

Likewise, van Hove is not beholden to the specifics of text. Indeed, his version of A View From the Bridge is cut down somewhat from the published version. It could be that van Hove has chosen to use Miller's original one-act version (I am unaware of how much it differs), but certainly the dialogue in the final scene has been diminished. The knife fight is replaced by what looks like a rugby huddle during a demonic rainstorm, as blood pours down on the company. A slow rendition of the “Libera me” movement of the requiem plays. We don't need to see the actual tragedy to know the tragedy has happened, is happening before our eyes.

Van Hove exclusively uses existing texts, usually classical works. “I discovered I could make much more personal work through the filter of a text by Shakespeare that was four hundred years old,” says van Hove. It is a preference that agrees with Grotowski, who said, “Even though we use classical texts, ours is a contemporary theatre in that it confronts our very roots with our current behavior and stereotypes, and in this way shows us our ‘today’ in perspective with ‘yesterday,’ and our ‘yesterday’ with ‘today.’”

“I want to make the most extreme, personal theatre, but for as big an audience as possible,” van Hove says about his work generally. “I am not the kind of theatre-maker who likes it for small audiences. I don’t do something to please, or to entertain. I don’t think theatre is there for entertainment, purely.”

A View From the Bridge highlights this approach. The audience gets its katharsis, that purging of emotion so vital to what theatre is, and it doesn't have to be over-produced. The audience need not be led from thesis to conclusion by the hand. As with all works that speak across generations, we are able to get something so meaningful and relevant where there may have been nothing before. Arthur Miller would certainly have approved.

Sources:
Grotowski, Jerzy. “The Theatre's New Testament.” Towards a Poor Theatre. 1968. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Mead, Rebecca. “Theatre Laid Bare.” The New Yorker, 26 October 2015.
Miller, Arthur. A View From the Bridge. 1955. New York: Penguin, 1977.
Schechner, Richard. Between Theatre and Anthropology. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania, 1985.