Sunday, 20 April 2014

A View from the Bridge (Young Vic)

It has become customary now for Ivo van Hove's work in London to be receiving standing ovations. If it was hardly a surprise for the Barbican audience to have given such a reception to the marathon Roman Tragedies (2010) or vertiginous Scenes from a Marriage (2013), the overwhelming enthusiasm for his latest work at the Young Vic really seals the deal. But as the audience around me was - deservedly - jumping up to their feet I was trying to fathom what they were actually applauding: The play, the director, or the actors?

And here was I on a rare trip to the theatre - the first one on my own since giving birth in December - thinking of my students. Not specific ones, just students of directing I have taught, and the general preconception they tend to arrive with that a good time in the theatre equals  good acting, and that the main job of the director is to facilitate this. When they direct, many of them approach the task by simply trying to bring out the kind of performances they like to see or that they would instinctively create themselves if they were playing those parts. This is a generalisation - and I must admit that there have been honourable exceptions to this - but it's a tendency that crops up frequently enough in practice not to go unnoticed. And I think it is rooted in the British cultural heritage of a theatre director as an actor manager rather than an author in his own right.

As it happens, Van Hove did bring out first class performances from his British cast (cumulatively far stronger perhaps even than the performances of his own ensemble members previously seen here), but the way he did this seems very different than my students might have expected.

I have already written about the way in which Van Hove's approach to text can be distinguished from that of a British director by reference to an intense interest in dramaturgy ( In his production of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, Van Hove demonstrates that this approach does not have to be culture specific. It does not have to be radical in terms of staging or the treatment of text itself. It works even with an American play, British and American actors, and a British audience. (British critics seemingly too, though at the time of writing this response I have deliberately not read any of the reviews yet). This deep dramaturgical reading of a play can also be deployed to serve the text in the same way that British directors tend to do, but in this case, everything coheres around what the director and dramaturg have decided the play is about rather than 'what the author might have intended'. And by being directed with such clarity, the actors are truly liberated to shine. Which they do, to a magnificent extent.

So what did Van Hove specifically do with Miller's text?

The world of the play is literally encapsulated by Jan Versweyveld's set - an empty white box whose walls lift up at the beginning to offer a lateral cross section view of the characters' lives. This could be an imaginary courtyard, an enterior, a prison, a morgue and, towards the end, it even offers a chilling prospect of a metaphorical abatoir.

Even though the play opens with naturalistic physical gestures denoting the characters' interactions, the set is bare and, gradually, dramatic action becomes increasingly spare too. The performance is almost entirely underscored with an atmospheric, solemn score.

When the narrator - lawyer Alfieri - literally enters the story half way through, he takes his shoes off to join the other barefoot characters. The rising tensions between characters are underlined in a scene where they all sit around the edges of the set taking turns in speaking their lines to the beat of a metronome. Thus the diegisis enters the mise en scene, divorcing the action from the text and making way for a theatrical metaphor. This will culminate later in a scene where the immigration authorities arrive to arrest Marco and Rodolpho and which is rendered almost entirely verbally with Alfieri reciting the stage directions as the rest of the cast acquire more of a choric function. The moulding of the ensemble into metaphorical stage imagery will ultimately provide a fittingly epic finale to the piece as a whole too.

Miller's own choice to tell the story as a combination of Greek tragedy and Brechtian episodic narrative as well as van Hove's non-naturalistic directorial approach are both conducive towards an acting idiom which is not rooted in psychological realism. So we are at no point in the show invited to respond sentimentally. And yet, the acting is, as I have mentioned above, the most powerful aspect of the production which does eventually elicit a catharsis of sorts. In this way van Hove reveals another possible conception of dramatic character as bearer of metaphorical value rather than a role model for everyday human behaviour. In any case there is nothing everyday about tragic characters such as these. In other words, Eddie Carbone is not an incestuous uncle modelled on someone from Jerry Springer. Instead he becomes an impersonation of a particular flaw - the inability to let go - which may afflict anyone. Catherine is not an innocent victim; she has the wisdom to know what love is and how her uncle should be loved by a woman, or when she should escape his grip to love another man. These characters are interesting not because they are recognisable but because they are irreducible to a stereotype. They are both right and wrong and it takes some deliberation to view their behaviour in terms of the law of nature, as Alfieri suggests.

And so, as Eddie attempted to defend his overprotectiveness of Catherine by reference to the promise he made to her mother, I suddenly thought that he is no different than the theatre directors who feel their job is to honour the text. Stretching the analogy further I wondered what model of directorial intention the rest of these characters might embody. There is Eddie Carbone's tenacity, Beatrice's didacticism, Rodolpho's unconventional, ethereal, enticing ways. Or there is the route of pragmatic straightforwardness and physical prowess of Marco whose method is most searingly summed up in an act of lifting a chair. Finally there is Catherine who entertains our expectations up to a certain extent until she shows us she knows how to fly. And I would liken van Hove's approach on this occasion to hers. Whether or not this might seem a far fetched proposition, I would certainly recommend this show to any theatre student as a primer in how to read a play.

Direction Ivo van Hove 
Design and Light 
Jan Versweyveld
Costumes An D’Huys
Sound Tom Gibbons
Dramaturg Bart Van den Eynde 
UK Casting Julia Horan CDG 
US Casting Jim Carnahan CSA
Emun Elliott
Phoebe Fox
Michael Gould
Richard Hansell
Luke Norris
Jonah Russell
Mark Strong
Nicola Walker

Thursday, 17 April 2014

A homecoming of sorts

Since December last year I have been travelling with a pram in tow, so this usually means up and down the Jubilee line, and a couple of times, exceptionally, to the British library. As a result I'm also returning more to the notion of reading playscripts rather than watching live performances. And one play I have been particularly looking forward to reading has been Biljana Srbljanovic's Princip (This Grave is Too Small for Me).


Commissioned by Vienna's Schauspielhaus to be performed as part of the anniversary of the First World War, Biljana Srbljanovic's Princip (This Grave is Too Small for Me) has already been in performance there since October 2013 and last month it also received a Belgrade premiere under the direction of the Sarajevan director Dino Mustafic. As we speak, another production of the play has just opened at the Berlin Schaubuhne  , directed by the Iranian director Mina Salehpour.

I was initially intrigued by the play on hearing a radio interview with the playwright on the Belgrade radio station Pescanik in June last year ( Here the playwright shared her extraordinarily intriguing research which she referred to as 'cinematic' on several occasions, as well as her main overriding thesis that the assassin Gavrilo Princip and his teenage collaborators were first and foremost Yugoslavs, rather than Serbian nationalists as recent history has claimed. These aspiring intellectuals, socialists, anarchists and proto-feminists from Bosnia were, according to Srbljanovic's research, seduced and brutally manipulated by a Serbian nationalist secret society which has in various incarnations survived ideologically up until the present day and can also be held accountable for the assassination of the Serbian democratic pro-western prime minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003. Testimonies from the assassins' court hearings are invoked in which Princip for example claims that he is a Yugoslav, and a Serbo-Croat speaker without religious allegiance. This is coupled with imagery of the historical person being kept in the Terezin prison, with his gangrenous right hand hanging off his arm, tied with wires... He had been spared death penalty as he was under age at the time of the trial so he received a twenty year sentence, but he did not survive the intellectual, physical and mental exhaustion much beyond four years. 

Princip (This Grave is Too Small For Me) is not a documentary or a definitive statement about historical people and events. It is not a dramaturgically flawless piece either. But having now read it I feel an urgency to share this experience, especially as it deals with a topic that concerns us all. Srbljanovic was recently invited to a panel discussion on the First World War at Vienna's Burgtheater alongside one of the descendants of the Habsburg family. Why is this kind of discussion not available to us all? Why is Srbljanovic's play not available in English? Why is it that almost no-one in the UK has heard of her work when in the 1990s Srbljanovic's name was often mentioned alongside Sarah Kane's in Germany?

But this brings me to a question which I have perpetually returned to for the twenty years of living in the UK - why is there so little interest in or awareness of any theatre work coming from the Balkans in the English-speaking world? Fifteen years ago, as I grappled with this topic as part of my PHD, I arrived at the conclusion that more often than not the work was too parochial, embroiled in its own often difficult to understand context, demanding of too much auxiliary knowledge... But there have been exceptions too. Croatian dramatist Slobodan Snajder as well as Srbljanovic have had a very successful career in Germany. Another Serbian writer Dusan Kovacevic has managed to spark some interest in the United States. My own efforts have facilitated an introduction into the English speaking world of the Serbian  playwright Ugljesa Sajtinac and some advocacy for the performance work/activism of the Croatian troupe Shadow Casters. So it is not impossible for any of this work to communicate beyond its own context. It is just such hard work for it to be heard/seen/ understood in the English-speaking world...

Vesna Goldsworthy in her book Inventing Ruritania: Imperialism of the Imagination (1998) offers a riveting analysis of the ways in which the Balkans have been colonised by the British imagination - starting from Shakespeare's Illyria, via Hope's Ruritania to Stoker's Transylvania - often as a geographically vague, mysterious and violent place. Despite some women travellers' efforts to bestow some dignity on these places - notably Edith Durham's anthropological research in Albania and Rebecca West's travelogues through Yugoslavia in the first half of the 20th century - by the time of the early 1990s' wars in the former Yugoslavia, all of the past stereotypes resurfaced and regained full currency once again. So why should a Serbian writer be asked to comment on the beginning of the First World War when we all know the story... Why complicate things when the public has barely even got their heads around the existing narrative already... I say this with irony but you only need to read the comments under Srecko Hotvat's article on the this week ( to see that the general discussion is not very far from that standpoint.

As it happens, Srbljanovic's play does not make huge demands on its potential audience. She distils the historical events into a five-hander 'in two parts'. The first part is quite naturalistic - the Berlin director Salehpour has even said the characters' relationships remind her of an American sitcom ( The second part can be read even as a postdramatic attempt at dealing with the aftermath of the assassination. Interestingly the main assassination we witness in this play is an accidental, unwitting, perhaps even clumsy murder of a young female bystander with whom the assassin happens to have been in love - thus generating a metaphor for the naive 'young love' idealism of the Mlada Bosna organisation to which Princip belonged. 

As I mentioned above, although captivating in its conceit and execution this is not a play which warrants translation principally on its dramaturgical merit alone - but it does have the potential to open discussion, and it's a discussion that should be had all over Europe, including the English-speaking parts. So my final question is: who wants to know what happens next?