A View From the Bridge/Oh My Sweet Land

© Alastair Muir

© Alastair Muir

Young Vic Theatre, London

Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and Amir Nizar Zuabi’s Oh My Sweet Land may have little in common thematically. What do they share however is both being currently on show at the Young Vic, a theatre, under David Lan, whose quality of work seldom drops below excellent or intriguing and whose vibrancy you can feel immediately you walk in whether it’s just to have a drink or sample the evening’s artistic or gastronomic wares.

Lan was recently signed up as Consultant Artistic Director for New York’s new Performing Arts Space at the World Trade Center, a prestigious appointment apparently much influenced by his success of the Young Vic. And no wonder.

Arthur Miller, were he still alive, would no doubt enjoy the vibe the Young Vic gives off but what would he make of Ivo van Hove’s pared down, slimline version of one of his greatest plays? I suspect he’d be delighted. Ever a man to shake convention and present unpalatable truths, Miller’s A View from the Bridge is set near Brooklyn Bridge. It exudes realism and the tough lives of its Brooklyn longshoremen working the docks in the 1950s but Its emotional canvas carries the power of a Greek tragedy.

At least, that’s what Miller himself always felt and van Hove, taking his cue from his author, provides a climax of cathartic blood-letting, that would do credit to any Greek classic, devastating in its iconography, as much as its realisation.

Van Hove is the director of Amsterdam’s charismatic Toneelgroep whose radical staging of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, seen at the Barbican, were a revelation to those of us brought up on RSC/NT and Shakespeare’s Globe declamatory and rhetorical style. Van Hove’s iconoclastic approach here dispenses with anything approaching naturalism presenting the play in the round contained within a single square box.

A distancing device for a period piece exploring one of the most taboo of human passions – incest – it adds to a sense of inexorable doom as the play hurtles towards its inevitable conclusion and without having to underline its Italianate/Sicilian roots, setting it firmly in the tradition of the Mafia, The Godfather and much else besides. The play is, after all, apart from its dealing with personal passions, fascinating at this time for what it tells us about immigrants, the harshness of trying to exist in a new country, the bonds of loyalty especially within Sicilian `family’ and the code of `honour’. `Give me my name’ cries Eddie towards the end, a Shakespearean echo if ever there was one.

Van Hove’s cast is headed by the quiet, menacing authority of Mark Strong’s Eddie Carbone, the uncle who cannot keep his hands, eyes and heart off his niece, Phoebe Fox’s Catherine. The consistently excellent Nicola Walker, again turns in a powerfully underplayed performance as Eddie’s perceptive but helpless wife, Beatrice. And there are strong performances from Emun Elliott and Luke Norris as the two immigrant brothers whose arrival in the Carbone household lays bare the transgressive feelings festering beneath the surface. As the narrating lawyer friend, Alfieri whose burden it is to watch, but who like Beatrice, is powerless to prevent the inevitable outcome, Michael Gould is by turns sorrowful and angry.

In the Young Vic’s Maria Studio, by contrast, there is only one voice, that of multi-lingual German-Syrian-French actor, Corinne Jaber. Yet her 70 minute monologue is peopled by a dozen other voices, if not a nation. Subtitled, A Love Story from Syria, Jaber with Palestinian writer-director, Amir Nizar Zuabi takes us from Munich to Paris to Beirut to Amman and many other places besides.Oh My Sweet Land by Amir Nizar Zuabi

This too is a story of immigration but forced immigration – exile, torture, loss of homeland. Jaber and Zuabi went to the Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan; they talked to its occupants, the wives and mothers. Their stories are told by Jaber in the form of a love story to one man she meets in Paris, a Syrian activist, and through the cooking in real time of the Syrian dish kubah, meat balls coated in bulgar wheat. Kubah comes to stand for the Syrian protestors, the thin crust for the skin that protects but is so easily pierced.
`The crust is called skin. It covers the meat just as ours does. The skin has to be just right. Too thick and it’s not nice to bite into, it’s too coarse. Too thin and it ruptures while you fry it and all you’re left with is flesh everywhere…’

Cooking as a theatrical metaphor is not new. Bobby Baker, the extraordinary British performance artist has often used it in her performances. Jaber and Zuabi use it here to underline and make subtle parallels with the barbarism being acted out in Syria which with the same kind of impotence as Beatrice or Alfieri in View from the Bridge we in the West seem unable to stop.

In the past, Jaber has worked with Peter Brook in Paris. It shows. There is nothing garish or melodramatic about her telling of Zuabi’s direct, unadorned story. Its appalling detail is told with simple matter-of-fact dignity, without raised voice. Only the swish of the knife on meat, the sizzling of oil and the final image – a fridge stuffed with raw joints – tell their own tale, impregnating the conscience with smells that linger long after you’ve left the theatre.

First published in Londongrip, April 2014