JOYCE MCMILLAN on A VEW FROM THE BRIDGE at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, and MEDEA at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 4.6.09
A View From The Bridge 4 stars ****
Medea 4 stars ****
THERE’S NO SECRET about what was on Arthur Miller’s mind, at the time – in the late 1940’s and early 50’s – when he was writing his great American tragedies, All My Sons, Death Of A Salesman, and A View From The Bridge. He wanted, certainly, to arraign American society for its heartless pursuit of material success; for giving people “the wrong dreams”, unfulfillable for most ordinary men and women.
But like his predecessor Eugene O’Neill, he also wanted to demonstrate that true tragedy could be made out of ordinary American lives, and – in Miller’s case – out of the kind of working-class experience traditionally held at the margins of tragedy. Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman is possibly the greatest of all modern tragic heroes, the little man reduced to a mighty despair by his failure to emerge as a winner from the game he has believed in all his life.
And he is run very close by Eddie Carbone, the decent, hardworking Brooklyn longshoreman whose life collapses around him when his passion for the niece he has raised as a daughter – a passion he cannot name, and cannot afford fully to recognise – drives him to commit an act of moral suicide, in the tight-knit New York Italian community that gives his life its meaning. Like any good family man of his time and place, Carbone has welcomed into his home two cousins of his wife Beatrice, illegal immmigrants desperate to make their way in America. But when his niece Catherine falls in love with one of them, Eddie’s raging pain and jealousy drive him to an act of betrayal that utterly destroys him.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that when the great Scottish actor Ken Stott brought A View From The Bridge home to Glasgow, earlier this week, in Lindsay Posner’s current UK touring production, the audience at the Theatre Royal simply took the play to their hearts, as if it was one of their own. It’s not only the familiar setting, in a world of hard men bred to work in docks and shipyards, that makes this a play close to Glasgow’s heart; it’s also the spirit of Miller’s determination to show the heroic passion and tragedy of an ordinary working man, a tragedy that had some in the audience gasping with shock when Eddie makes his fatal phone-call to the immigration authorities.
In truth – and despite some beautifully lit tableaux of Brooklyn life in the mid-20th-century – Posner’s production is not flawless, or even particularly imaginative. It offers the play more or less exactly as it was first written more than half a century ago, without comment or reinterpretation. It indulges in dreary blackouts between scenes while stagehands fuss around with chairs; and it is linked together by a frighteningly underpowered performance from Allan Corduner as the local lawyer, Alfieri, who acts as Eddie’s confidant and chorus.
But even with all these limitations – and a consequent loss of power towards the end, as the cast try to navigate the play’s torrid final scenes without much of a compass – there’s simply no denying the force of this great story; and its magnificence is etched in every line on Ken Stott’s face, as he charts Edde’s terrible, unstoppable decline from crumpled geniality into a hell of his own making. He receives strong support from Hayley Attwell as the lovely Catherine, and from Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his loving wife Beatrice. But in the end, this version of A View From The Bridge seems like something of a one-man show; and it’s a tribute to Stott’s power and integrity as an actor that it’s unlikely to be forgotten by any of that Glasgow first-night audience, who, on a memorably sultry New York night in Hope Street, cheered Stott’s final bow to the echo.
Astonishingly, though, Stott’s is not the only performance of towering tragic stature on stage in Glasgow this week. For up the road at Oran Mor, David MacLennan has launched his Corona Classic Cuts summer season of brief lunchtime classics with a version of Medea – adapted and directed by Paddy Cunneen – in which the award-winning acress Cara Kelly gives a truly world-class performance as the mighty pagan princess driven to a world-shattering rage by her husband Jason’s betrayal.
Like Eddie Carbone, Medea is a victim of unrequited passion, driven to an unthinkable act of destruction in her quest for vengeance; unlike him, she conforms to the old tragic metaphor which makes every hero and heroine a prince, or – in this case – the granddaughter of a God.
But with the help of a magnificently hard-hitting modern version of the text, based on Alistair Elliot’s translation, as well as a series of deft supporting performances from Candida Benson with a nine-strong female chorus, Kelly and Cunneen give us a chillingly powerful Medea, who seems, with her magnificent, searching eyes, to call every member of the audience to account for our age-old tolerance of the betrayal and discarding of women to whom serious promises have been made. Like A Vew From The Bridge, Euripides’ mighty drama takes a passion known to almost all of us – unrequited or rejected love and desire – and explores how it can make the whole world tremble, when we refuse to suppress or deny it, or settle for less. And if Ken Stott is giving a masterclass in 20th century tragedy at the Theatre Royal this week, then Kelly matches him step for step, in a play that goes back to tragedy’s most ancient roots, and reminds us of the shuddering power it draws from them.
A View From The Bridge at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, and Medea at Oran Mor, Glasgow, both until Saturday, 6 June. An earlier version of this review of A View From The Bridge appeared in some editions of The Scotsman on Tuesday.