I’ll never forget the first time I saw Arthur Miller’s 1955 play A View from the Bridge, on Broadway in New York. Tiered on-stage seating had been added for the production, and during one of the most explosive moments, an audience member seated there – metres from the action – collapsed. Someone screamed for help, others hurled aspirin across the theatre (thinking he was having a heart attack), and the actors slinked offstage.
While Miller’s intention – assumedly – wasn’t to plunge audiences into unconsciousness, the flaring, at times suffocating, tensions creep up on you in his classic about an unravelling American-Italian family in 1950s Brooklyn. “It goes from domestic to operatic, but you can’t really work out when it changes,” says Kate Champion. She’s directing State Theatre’s run of the play, which opens at the Dunstan Playhouse next month.
When dockworker Eddie Carbone and his wife Beatrice take in two Sicilian relatives who have immigrated to America illegally, the household is thrown off its axis and Eddie has to confront the reality of his jealous protectiveness towards his (wife’s) niece, Catherine. A web of love, loyalty and dark attraction slowly comes undone around him.
“The way [Miller] plants little seeds that blossom here and connect there build that tension,” says Champion, when Broadsheet visits during rehearsals. “The text is extraordinarily constructed, it’s trusting [that].”
Guiding the ensemble – and the audience – headfirst into a fist-clenching climax is a delicate directorial task. “You’ve got to be careful not to become hysterical with it, and have a certain amount of restraint,” Champion says. “If you do it right you can create a sense [there’s] something bubbling away under the surface. It’s knowing when to release that valve … and making sure the audience feels the catharsis, which I think is a big theme for Miller.”
“[Champion] is great at creating a rehearsal room that enables each ensemble member to know where their place is as the tension builds,” says actor Dale March, who plays one of the Sicilian relatives, Marco. “In some way, everyone has blood on their hands,” adds Champion.
Attitudes towards those who immigrate “illegally” in search of a better life are as void of nuance in the play as they are in society today – both in the US and at home. “The [dockworkers] are starting to feel like the immigrants are taking their jobs, and their daughters and wives. But every human has a right to fight for a dignified life. I don’t know how you reconcile that; I think it’s an eternal question, one for the audience,” says Champion.
A fourth-wall-breaking narrator, Alfieri, moves in and out of the action. He’s an American lawyer who was raised in Italy – the bridge between two cultures. “He allows it not to be a voyeuristic experience, he penetrates the skin between the action and the audience,” says Champion.
The play is a product of the era in which it was written, and the perspectives of the male playwright (and narrator) reflect the sexism of the 1950s. (“I do wonder why we keep doing plays about dysfunctional patriarchs controlling women in a household,” says Champion – last year State Theatre staged a production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, about exactly that). In A View from the Bridge, Champion wants to subtly flip the script (where she can).
“I don’t think many women direct it,” she says. “Miller had a particular ’50s-male way of seeing women – that they often need protecting and are quite childlike. I’m interested in challenging that … without going against [the story]. I take some liberty with the stage directions. Like, the young daughter’s not crying when she goes to have sex for the first time, she’s actually choosing it. They’re not only reacting, they’re initiating.”
In such a complex, dialogue-heavy work, anything peripheral to the script has to serve – not distract from – the story. “Miller is exceptional at writing syntax and cadence of a time and place; even the roles with very little dialogue, you feel character in them,” says March.
Metal framework and hanging ropes make up the set. There are hardly any props. “It’s about human bodies and their way of giving the audience narrative and character, not about manipulating small things,” says Champion, who has an acclaimed dance-theatre background. “My aim here isn’t to show physicality, it’s more about the training – all the things I would do to create a dance-theatre work. It could be as simple as the timing of when someone puts their hand on someone else’s leg.”
A View From the Bridge runs from July 12 to August 3 at Dunstan Playhouse. Tickets are available online.