Left – Janine Watson, David Soncin, Zoe Terakes. Cover – Anthony Gooley and Janine Watson. Photos – Prudence Upton
A remounting of a production which originated at the Old Fitz Theatre, this rendition of Arthur Miller’s scorching drama of repression and obsession is truly magnificent. The play is set in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, amongst 1950s Italian-American dockworkers facilitating the illegal immigration of Italians and Sicilians arriving by ship. Often relatives, they seek work on the docks and send money back to their impoverished families, and the entire local community operates under strict codes of secrecy to avoid the attention of immigration agents who would seek to deport these young men. Early on we are told that seemingly the worst crime imaginable in this neighborhood is the unthinkable act of ratting out a sheltered immigrant to the authorities.
Against this backdrop we meet well-regarded longshoreman Eddie, his wife Beatrice, and Catherine, Bea’s orphaned niece and effectively their daughter by default. Eddie is overprotective of Catherine, attempting to hold her back from seeking secretarial work and terrified of her dating anyone, despite now being almost 18. When the small family agrees to host two ship-jumping Sicilian cousins of Bea, there is an immediate attraction between Catherine and Rodolpho, the younger, more outgoing bachelor of the pair.
Immediately, Eddie is consumed with suspicion and resentment at this courtship, ostensibly aggrieved that he has not been shown adequate “respect” by Rodolpho in seeking his blessing as Catherine’s surrogate father. Eddie primarily justifies his instinctive animosity by asserting a suspicion that Rodolpho could be using potential marriage to Catherine as a path to much-desired American citizenship. Yet an insidious, almost manic loathing starts to creep in, with the possessive uncle clutching at straws to find things in Rodolpho that would make him a demonstrably unsuitable match for his darling “baby girl”.
As the family tensions rise and relationships degenerate, it becomes clear that this is all much less about Rodolpho or even Catherine, but rather Eddie himself, his ego, and his own unexamined and inappropriate desires.
It has become fashionable in some circles lately to dismiss or even mock the long-vaunted “universality” of the human experience as portrayed in the canon of western drama, coming as it does primarily from the pens, and thus perspective, of cisgendered white male privilege. There is undeniably some validity to at least a reevaluation of these long-held assumptions. But if ever there was a candidate for a 64-year-old play to be held up as having unexpectedly enduring contemporary relevance, it would be this superficially very “period” drama. Arthur Miller would have never heard the modern term “toxic masculinity”, yet his portrayal of Eddie as an ultimately self-destructive tragic protagonist could hardly be more on-point.
Moreover, it is not only a deeply affecting and confronting characterisation, but one that is also far more subtle than much of what is often portrayed in the current discourse. The toxicity of Eddie’s male ego is comparatively opaque at first, not being a character who is either consciously troubled by self-perceived shortcomings in his own masculinity, nor is he overtly misogynistic beyond the patriarchal standards of the time. He doesn’t harass women for sex and then castigate them for refusing – if anything, it is the opposite.
While Eddie doesn’t constantly mouth off generalisations about women being whores or keeping their place, it is nevertheless implicit in his character that he has a deep and tortured need to control Catherine for self-serving reasons that he himself does not even realise. God forbid he listen when Beatrice tries to explain it to him, which gets dismissed as stereotypical wifely hectoring.
So blind is he to the undercurrents of his own unexamined sexual identity, that Eddie falls deeper and deeper into a roiling state of distress and frustration he can barely comprehend, much less articulate. And when he contrives to level an unfounded homophobic accusation against Rodolpho, it doesn’t seem born out of any projection or “gay panic” in the modern sense, but rather as a desperate excuse to find any basis on which to prevent the attractive young man taking Catherine away from him.
This horrendous conflation of ego, possessiveness, and need for authority over women and younger men ultimately leads Eddie to make a dire choice, and once the die is cast he cannot back down. Even knowing full well that he has violated his own principles, any admission of such is unthinkable. Eddie evidently believes that ramping up his aggression and indignation in defense of a lie is his only recourse, as though attempting to bully the victims of his actions into a false admission seems more logical than penitently seeking absolution from those he has wronged.
Director Iain Sinclair has done a simply masterful job with this taut, riveting rendition of Miller’s play, stripping back the naturalistic set descriptions to utilise only a bare stage with a single chair. This crystalises the audience’s focus onto the performances with sharp clarity, a bold choice that bespeaks a supreme confidence in the actors, and it is a faith well rewarded.
This is a tight cast of powerful actors who each deliver excellent, impactful performances. Janine Watson imparts suitable pathos to the role of Beatrice who, almost Cassandra-like, can see the dire consequences of what is inexorably taking shape around her, while being powerless to have anyone listen to her attempts to prevent them. A similarly prophetic quality is instilled in David Lynch’s role of Alfieri, Eddie’s would-be lawyer, and narrator to the pay.
David Soncin and Scott Lee deliver nuanced performances as the immigrant brothers Marco and Rodolpho, while Zoe Terakes is truly phenomenal on every level as Catherine, wholistically portraying the previously infantalised, but now blossoming young woman, through superb vocalisation and evocative body language alike. They very much deserve all the praise that has been heaped upon them.
Yet despite the strength of the entire ensemble, it is hard not to single out for highest plaudits the absolutely stunning work by Anthony Gooley as Eddie. This is a truly towering performance that is charming, terrifying, pathetic, endearing, and emotionally complex. While Miller’s poetic text and Sinclair’s powerful direction cannot be undersold, ultimately Gooley’s realisation of this character is so engrossing that it is hard to adequately praise it without resorting to outright hyperbole. Gooley fully embodies every shade of Eddie, from jovially avuncular to a sinewy prowling panther that radiates a palpable sense of coiled menace. Even more impressive is his ability to convey the undercurrents of false certainty and unrecognised incomprehension, seen to be at war within the character when words fail this sporadically inarticulate man. To demonstrate so masterful an understanding of a character who so profoundly does not understand himself, is a feat that is a joy to behold.
A View From the Bridge is a masterclass in acting and direction, and a sensational revival of a powerful play from one of the greatest modern American playwrights.
Ensemble Theatre presents
A View from the Bridge
by Arthur Miller
Director Iain Sinclair
Venue: Ensemble Theatre | 78 McDougall St, Kirribilli, NSW
Dates: 24 July – 24 August 3029
Tickets: $43 – $80
Bookings: 02 9929 0644 | www.ensemble.com.au