Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s reputation preceded him to the Young Vic, but few could have expected anything like this. He has taken Arthur Miller’s play, a masterpiece of modern drama, stripped it down to its bare essentials and rebuilt it piece by piece so that it comes to resemble a spoken opera. Clues that we are in for something special come from the very beginning. With the audience seated on three sides of an all-white oblong stage, a surrounding curtain rises slowly and, to the sound of solemn church music, reveals two men washing after their day’s hard work as longshoremen in 1950s Brooklyn, New York. One of them is Eddie, a legal Italian migrant who lives with his wife (Nicola Walker) and her 17-year-old orphaned niece, Catherine (Phoebe Fox). Their lives are disturbed by the arrival, illegally, of two relatives from Italy who need accommodation. An attraction forms between Catherine and one of them, Rodolpho (Luke Norris) and its growth is matched by that of Eddie’s uncontrollable jealousy. Miller moulds his play from Greek tragedy, with a lawyer acting as the chorus, commenting on events to the audience and to Eddie, the outcome seeming inevitable and unavoidable from the beginning. It is an enormous challenge for any writer and actor to express the emotions of an inarticulate man who cannot even understand them himself. Miller rose to the challenge and now Mark Strong, a hard man in many films, gives what must be a career-defining performance as Eddie. The visceral power, intensity and authenticity displayed by Strong are, at times, staggering. The other performances are also impeccable, but it is the director who is behind making this production of the play stand out from any other; there is no set and only one prop is used throughout the uninterrupted two hours running time; the actors are all barefoot, as if treading on sacred ground; the religious music persists at decreased or increased volumes, accompanied at times of high tension by a slow, soft drum beat. Occasionally, it benefits to look at actors who are peripheral to the scene taking place, in order to observe how they are staying in character and reacting. It seems as if every tiny detail matters to van Hove in his quest to develop and heighten the drama, but taking note of each of the details is impossible whilst we are reeling at their cumulative impact. The climactic scene sees an unforgettable coup de theatre that is visually shocking, but entirely appropriate to the drama leading up to it. It is still only Spring, but, if London theatre sees anything better than this production during 2014, it will have been a truly blessed year. A shattering experience.
Performance date: 14 May 2014