Hulking Hero

British actors of the eye-pleasingly hip variety have been so much in demand in America in the past few years that an agent jokes she might as well run a pipeline from London’s best acting schools to  Hollywood and Broadway.

Mark Strong has crept steadily up the Anglo-rankings in the stellar wake of Tom Hiddleston, Jude Law and Damian Lewis. Specialising in playing screen baddies from le Carré to Kick-Ass (a British-American superhero action comedy, m’lud), his towering physique, handsome baldness and piercing stare are useful adjuncts for characters teetering on the edge of reason.

 In Ivo van Hove’s production of A View from the Bridge at Wyndham’s, Strong takes on the more testing part of a flawed hero and aces his performance as Eddie Carbone, Arthur Miller’s human wrecking ball, destroying his family and betraying his fellow Sicilians in a quest to save his niece from the inevitable path of desire, lust and parting.

From the moment Strong takes to the stage, showering like a grimy Hercules after the day’s dockland labours, his command of the part is absolute. Eddie’s unshakeable certainty about his duty to his niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox) is manifest in every gesture, from the finger-snapping dismissal of her desire to work as a secretary to the myopic remorselessness of his fatal misjudgment in betraying her fiancé. Van Hove described the play as “like witnessing a car accident that you see a hundred metres before it happens” and his version — two hours without an interval — works the intensity of the story, as the personable duo of illegal immigrants challenge the hierarchy of the Carbone household.

Sixty years after it was written, A View from the Bridge revives two themes that resonate today: the ambiguities of immigration and the suspicion of the assimilated to those who come after them, and the queasy territory of incestuous longing.

Perhaps the hardest part to nail in a play that is essentially about doomed masculinity is that of the hapless female catalyst. Catherine is caught between her attachment to Eddie and attraction towards Rodolpho (Luke Norris), whose pursuit of marriage may well be intertwined with his hopes of American citizenship.

The short distance travelled by the characters between normality, dysfunction and conflict gives Miller’s work its abiding power, long after the longshoremen of Brooklyn have faded to industrial ghosts. This directing and design team — van Hove and Jan Versweyveld — got a bit lost in their recent Antigone on the vast acreage that is the Barbican stage. In the relatively intimacy of Wyndham’s we see only the exterior of Eddie’s Brooklyn tenement, bounded by a Perspex wall.

The Belgian director’s expertise lies in translating theatre classics so that the moral dilemma and tensions transcend period, allowing us to observe the architecture of the great plays, rather than their period detail. Members of the audience are seated onstage, like extras in a Greek chorus or a silent jury, watching Eddie’s descent into paranoia. It is as evident in Strong’s writhing body language as his fisticuffs with Rodolpho. A striking, blood-soaked, orgiastic finale could as easily come from Sophocles as from Miller’s pen.

Stripping away a sense of place means that we forfeit some of the play’s sense of a community caught between an Italian past and the edge of Manhattan’s allure, yet divorced from its promise and glitter. Without such a strong lead and confident cast — Nicola Walker lingers in the mind as Eddie’s alienated, despairing wife — the result might be pallid. But Strong’s riveting performance as a Hercules brought low by chance and psyche sustains the action to its bitter close. Place your bets now for the big drama awards. This is the nearest a theatre column should ever get to tipping a winner.

By comparison with Eddie’s self-inflicted woes, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown at London’s Playhouse Theatre offers an evening of light relief. I confess to having been dubious about adapting Pedro Almodóvar’s Spanish screwball comedy for the musical stage — it hardly seemed worth the effort and, having tanked on Broadway, the show underwent a complete overhaul to give it a sporting chance in London. Fortunately, this jaunty tale of mid-life depression, tranquiliser dependency and a threatened terror attack gets a whoosh of energy from the joint female leads Haydn Gwynne and Tamsin Greig, playing the jilted wife and mistress of an unattractive Spanish lothario.

To judge by the audience’s applause levels, Greig is the main draw here, vaunting her engaging neurotic style as Pepa, a mid-life actress whose quest to regain her lover leads to a concatenation of disasters — including knocking out most of the cast with valium-laced gazpacho at one point. But it is Gwynne, as Lucía, whose combination of deranged emotion after a decade in a mental hospital and bravura comic ebullience carries the show.

Thwarted desire is pushed to its brilliant illogical consequence and leads to a court scene in which she refuses to compromise on a divorce settlement and belts out a contralto demand that the court give her back her lost years. If the music is unmemorable, the sentiments remain potent.

Bartlett Sher’s savvy production keeps the 1980s of Almodóvar’s screwball tale intact, as giant wire-tangled telephones ring erratically, vital calls are missed and answering-machine tapes fill up at the wrong moment. The show’s design is heaven for fashionistas, with costumes mainly drawn from Courrèges and vintage collections, with some glorious pageants of lime-green and pink mini-suits, ocelot jackets and white platform boots.

It feels sunny, snazzy and offbeat, but Almodóvar’s story is infused with enough sadness about loss, infidelity and ageing to leave a lump in the throat too. Lucía’s aria “Invisible” marks the moment in middle age when a high heel or sashay down the Gran Vía no longer turns male heads.

Some wincing moments occur in a plot that casually throws in the contrivance of an Islamist bomber on the loose as a catalyst for merry chaos. That tells us something about how much the threat of extremism has infiltrated life in Europe’s big cities since Almodóvar’s 1980s heyday. Some think it should be excised in the era of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity and youthful recruits to the bomb-making business across Europe. Surely not. The job of culture, said Bertolt Brecht, is to keep on going “in the dark times”. That includes levity about the serious, as well as due seriousness about the dark things.

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