Tragedy and Comedy

Tom Sutcliffe explores issues of immigration and women's freedom — and enjoys a good laugh in Berlin

I missed A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic last year, but seized a £39 matinee ticket to catch it just now at the Wyndham's — where my seat was on the side of the stage, right up close. It was extraordinary: sharply focussed action, no scenery — just a doorway in the middle of the back wall and an enclosing wall round the space that could be sat on. But physically the actors' performances were completely naturalistic, intimate, confessional, searingly credible and irresistibly involving. This domestic tragedy by Arthur Miller, originally written in verse and telling the story in one act, he reworked with Peter Brook for its London premiere in 1956. in prose and two acts. Ingo van Hove the Belgian director here did it without interval, built slowly, coolly. The piece is all about what's in Eddie's mind, and Mark Strong is phenomenal in the role. A longshoreman of Sicilian extraction, Eddie is in taco parentis for Catherine, who lost her mother. The story centres on parenthood that is carried out wrong, that may be just infatuation. Illegal immigrants who are cousins of Eddie's wife Beatrice have landed and are going to stay. One, Marco, works more resolutely than Rodolpho, who can sing and is beautiful and for whom inevitably Catherine falls. The switch in the piece to mortal danger is when Eddie kisses Rodolpho long and hard on the mouth, trying to show Catherine what he believes: that she cannot trust him because he has to be homosexual. Previously, he had rated Rodolpho untrustworthy as just wanting to get married to an American so he would stop being an illegal. The play builds sickeningly through each inevitable step one can dread coming.

The production by van Hove just never puts a foot wrong. The truth in how they all react to each other is precisely and perfectly observed: the affection, the caring, the jealousy, the fury, the fear, the resentment. At no point does one doubt that human weakness is inescapable. Even the final flood of sweet-smelling orange liquid, like a rain of blood covering them all in a tangled mass of distress and failed prevention and pain and death, seems not an excess by the director but a good arrest of the process. Michael Gould as Alfieri — the lawyer who narrates, explains — could not be better judged.Nicola Walker as the put-upon wife who can see the outcome well in advance is brilliant. Phoebe Fox as Catherine has just the right modest determination to be herself and have her love. Emun Elliott's Marco is the Sicilian sense of honour debased demanding revenge and fulfilling it after Eddie betrays the illegals.

The performance was profoundly cathartic, and shocking, but it stirred recognition from me more than mere useless tears that Eddie's betrayal of trust is as dire and sinful as a deliberate act of murder. Human tragedy, I suppose, is always a judgment in the ultimate court from which there is no escape the day of wrath. Miller's play is an extraordinary work. Tragedies cannot be written in every age, but this one has the permanence (in its aspirational poverty context) of a Greek classic. Maybe we only deserve new mind-opening tragedies in our theatre when we are up to them and have the strength — even in a modern age when everything seems to run too fast to value, let alone properly observe.

Immigrants and women's freedom, Miller's subject matter, are burningly relevant and painful issues today in Britain. The Americans have been trying to pull up the drawbridge and seldom welcome whom they allow in for almost a century now. Our excuse here is that ifs a small island. But everything is comparative, and the poverty in postwar Sicily that drove the illegals in Miller's play is no different from the poverty and war and famine driving Africans northwards to escape to Europe. It is one world, which the good Samaritan teaches us.

In the evening after my passionate Miller matinee I watched the BBC's documentary India's Daughter, in which one of the rapists and his lawyer proclaim their view that the victim was to blame for enabling rape to happen by her inappropriate untimely presence and, moreover, responsible for provoking her own cruelly murderous physical assault by resisting the rapists. What is fitting for a girl (thinking in toco parentis) is a crucial part of the inner minds exposed in India's Daughter, where the extreme dignity of the victim's so sad parents made the ghastly circumstance of what occurred almost unbearably moving. The documentary did move me to tears because of the excruciatingly painful but simple terms in which it demonstrated what was martyrdom. Her rapists casually convicted their virtuous victim without any justice, turning this girl, a medical student with no advantages of status, motivated only by a desire to become a healer, and simply returning with her boyfriend home after a visit to the cinema, into a mere tool for their satisfaction. But old habits do die hard. The elderly Indian female judge who spoke of it with precision and intelligence was a world away from the defence lawyer and perpetrators who in their views are probably with the Indian majority were it asked. Caste, like class, immobilises the witnessing of truth, unless something as powerful as religion is able to break through. The perpetrators with their old sense of how things should be, how a girl should stay home, were all from the bottom and poorest of Indian society.

How different was the theme of Barrie Kosky's sublimely funny and brilliantly arranged two-hander quick-change version of Oscar Straus's Eine Frau, die Weiss, was sie will! at the Berlin Komische 0 per, which I saw with tears of laughter streaming down my face in a packed theatre rocking hysterically. A Woman who Knows what she Wants opened in autumn 1932 at the Metropol-Theater, which is what the Komische used to be, and did not run for long because of the Nazi election win the following February. Kosky and conductor Adam Benzwi have made this musical comedy from the silver age of operetta work perfectly for two sublimely accomplished veteran artists, Dagmar Manzel and Max Hopp (the latter the most virtuoso of the two, he plays 14 characters to her merely seven). This is a backstage story using no set — just a door at the front of the stage —about a lascivious old operetta star and her daughter (who does not know that she is her daughter), and an admirer (whom the daughter is in love with) who loves the mother, and the father who has had custody and denied the mother any connection with her daughter. It is a very good story, perhaps a little advanced for 1932, but not unfamiliar in today's world. Utterly hilarious what tricks all these people get up to, it being based on a 1920 farce by Louis Verneuil.

The theatre of our dreams is a wonderful place and I am very lucky to have seen the masks of tragedy and of comedy within five days so astonishingly wielded.

Return to Trushare Home Page

Return to Home Page of This Issue