JOYCE MCMILLAN on A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, and THE USHERS at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts 20.1.11
A View From The Bridge 4 stars ****
The Ushers 3 stars ***
THE MORE a piece of work is local, the more it becomes universal. So said the great Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay; and perhaps the same rule applies to time as well as place. Arthur Miller’s great American tragedy A View From The Bridge is famously set in Brooklyn in the early 1950’s; its people are working-class Italian Americans of the mid 20th century, full of traditional ideas about justice and honour, or about the roles of men and women, which are on the cusp of change.
In this play, though, Miller famously sets himself a double task. He not only reflects that specific Italian-American background with the kind of care and respect rarely lavished on migrant communities anywhere, but also seeks to gaze through its surface at the mighty, unchanging human passions which drive the action. And although, in this play, the tension between the two tasks is sometimes obvious, the sheer grip of this great drama on audiences shows how successful Miller was, both in honouring a certain time and place in American history, and in transcending it, to create a tragedy of almost unlimited weight and resonance.
The hero, then, is Eddie Carbone, a middle-aged dockyard worker torn between two compelling passions. The one is his absolute loyalty to his own family and community, the rock on which much of New York’s story is built; so that when two cousins of his wife Beatrice arrive as illegal migrants off a ship from Italy, Eddie accepts them into his home without question.
The other passion, though, is the one that Eddie cannot deal with because he cannot acknowledge it, even to himself; it is his feeling for his lovely 17-year-old niece Catherine, the girl he and Beatrice have raised from childhood, and whom he now cannot bear to see falling in love with one of the new migrants, Rodolfo. There is no secret about Eddie’s story, as witnessed and predicted by the kindly neighbourhood lawyer, Alfieri; in the end, almost inevitably, his explosive, unspoken jealousy leads him to the act of betrayal that will destroy his life.
Along the way, though, Miller offers us a brilliant and still superbly timely analysis of the tensions within any immigrant community, and of the way some of those tensions play out through sexual politics; there is one exchange about the way migrant boys see American-born girls that could have come straight from the current debate around the sexual “grooming” case in Bradford. And if Eddie’s inner drama is a little less well resolved – he dies still in denial, never fully aware of what has destroyed him – it still has a power that leaves audiences gasping.
Of John Dove’s fine production at the Royal Lyceum, it is perhaps almost enough to say that it equals the best he has achieved in his superb spring series of Miller plays at the Lyceum, which began back in 2004 with a magnificent Death Of A Salesman, and has also included All My Sons, The Price, and The Man Who Had All The Luck. Michael Taylor’s set makes eloquent use of a revolve to capture the intimate relationship between the life of the Italian-America street, and Eddie’s domestic world; and Dove’s ten-strong cast – led by Stanley Townsend’s big, lovable bear of an Eddie Carbone, at first funny, then increasingly dangerous – deliver the play with a passion and conviction that touches the heart. The final scenes seem slightly shapeless, as if Townsend and Dove were still searching for the full meaning of Eddie’s terrible downfall. Twenty years from now, though, people in Scotland who care about theatre will still be talking about the tremendous education they received from this mighty series of Lyceum productions; about Miller, about the grandeur of ordinary lives, and about the whole story of the 20th century, which Miller dramatised with such enduring power.
Like Miller’s drama, television writer Simon Crowther’s first play The Ushers – premiered at the Tron this week in a lively production by Scottish-based screen and theatre company Raindog – is set in a specific historic period, in this case the year 1996. The scene is the Sheffield flat of a Paisley boy called Jed, who has moved on in search of wider horizons; but on the eve of his sister’s wedding in Paisley, at which he is scheduled to act as an usher, Jed finds his Sheffield life invaded by his two Paisley mates Skarloey and Chubby, who have arrived with secrets to tell, and trouble to make.
Add into the mix Jed’s girlfriend’s best mate Zoe – alluringly played by Vicky Binns of Coronation Street, for which Crowther writes – and you have the ingredients of a classic old-fashioned living-room sofa play, in which characters sit around on a domestic set cracking the odd joke, and – in this case – romanticising the ordinary ups and downs of male friendship in a way that is both sentimental and self-pitying. And in a strange mirror-image of the process by which great writers reach the unviersal through the specific, Crowther’s references to the period in which the play is set are particularly heavy-handed, dragging in everything from the Dunblane shootings to the Spice Girls without ever achieving a real sense of the mood or significance of the time.
Thanks to a fistful of sharp performances, though – from Craig Porter as Jed, Neil Leiper as his dangerous mate Skarloey, and James Kirk as Chubby – Crowther succeeds in creating a group of characters whose future stories might be worth telling, as they pick their way through the journey from the mean streets of Paisley to a modern model of masculinity. And designer Kenny Miller adds a blood-red, shining floor that is often the most interesting thing on stage, as the evening unfolds; and certainly the most purely theatrical.
A View From The Bridge at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 12 February; The Ushers at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until Saturday, 22 January.