Monday, March 30, 2015

Secrets and Lies: Ghosts, A View from the Bridge, and Cymbeline

Jack Lowden and Lesley Manville in Ghosts, at Trafalgar Studios. (Photo by Hugo Glendinning)

Richard Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, starring Lesley Manville, which opened at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2013 and then moved to Trafalgar Studios, is booked into the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a month beginning Easter weekend. Aside from Manville, I’m not sure which members of the original cast will be appearing in Brooklyn; it is to be hoped that all of them will. I’ve seen a digital transcription of the production as it appeared at Trafalgar Studios, and it’s gripping. Eyre, who also adapted the text, orchestrates the play at a breathless pace, bringing it in at just over an hour and a half without intermissions. (There are three acts, and other versions of it I’ve seen have tended to run about an hour longer.) The urgency of the show dominates the experience, as well as the intimacy of the house, which you can feel even when you see it in HD; I’m not sure how well the second will translate in the BAM space, but certainly it’s well worth seeing in any environment.

Ibsen wrote Ghosts in 1881, two years after his breakthrough with A Doll’s House, and it caused almost as much of a scandal; in many countries, England among them, you couldn’t see the play unless you were a member of a theatrical club that sponsored it. (I guess the idea was that subscription performances didn’t qualify as a public display.) The shocking topic it deals with is syphilis, though the word is never uttered. Mrs. Alving’s son Oswald, a painter in his twenties, comes home to Norway after two years of living in Paris, just as she and her minister, Pastor Manders, are about to open an orphanage on her estate dedicated to the memory of her late husband. Mrs. Alving has always kept the truth from Oswald – and from the world – that his father was a drunken profligate whose affair with the maid, Johanna, produced a child. Though a local carpenter, Engstrand, married Johanna and gave the child a name, the girl, Regina, is a domestic in the Alving home, Mrs. Alving having determined to do what she can – that is, what she can get away with in this close-minded, puritanical society – for her. But on the day Oswald comes home, all lies are exposed. He reveals to his mother that he is brain-sick: vermoulu or “worm-eaten,” in the words of the doctor he saw in Paris. The doctor has told him, “The sins of the father have been visited on the son,” and though Oswald refused to believe him, Mrs. Alving confirms it.

Ibsen wrote his realist plays in the form of melodramas – well-made plays – but he played with the conventions, and his refusal to satisfy the audience’s expectations was as much a factor in unsettling them as the actions of the characters and the subject matter he insisted on addressing. Like A Doll’s House, Ghosts cuts off before the dénouement that tied up the plot strands in the popular well-made plays of the nineteenth century. (The prolific French playwrights Scribe and Sardou were masters of the form.) What makes a play like Ghosts such a challenge for modern directors is partly its narrative understatement – even though the fact of Victorian repressiveness justifies the reticence of the characters to announce precisely what’s going on – and more centrally its unabashedly melodramatic form. The first time I saw the play, in a memorable mounting at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival in the late seventies, with Margaret Tyzack (then famous for the BBC series The Forsyte Saga) as Mrs. Alving, the director undercut the melodrama with humor. That was especially the case in the depiction of Manders (William Hutt), the buttoned-up, desperately cautious minister who represents the conservative community that has stifled Mrs. Alving since she was a young woman – and whose counsel is now, as it always has been, seriously misguided. Though her social and political views have altered in her middle age, she continues to follow that counsel out of what she confesses is a lack of courage as well as an old affection for him; early in her marriage, she tried to run away from her husband into the arms of the then-young minister, but he sent her home. His latest bad advice is not to insure the orphanage because it will look as if she didn’t trust God to protect it. (Predictably, it burns down at the end of act two.) Manders, a great baby, in Mrs. Alving’s phrase, whom the alcoholic schemer Engstrand manipulates handily, is an easy target of satirical fun, but Eyre and the exceptional actor in the Almeida production, Adam Kotz, refuse to play him that way. This Manders is terrified not just of improper appearances but of his own smothered feelings for Mrs. Alving. (When he comes to see her, ferrying across from the mainland, he puts up in a hotel rather than sleeping under the same roof, even after all these years.) Kotz is a tall man with elegant looks; it’s not hard to see why she might have been attracted to him when they were younger.

Adam Kotz and Lesley Manville. (Photo by Hugo Glendinning)
Eyre’s adaptation approaches the issue of Ibsen’s indirect language by making the text more explicit (though no one ever mentions the word syphilis). Engstrand curses mildly, which doesn’t feel like an anachronism, as it often does in twenty-first-century versions of Ibsen and Chekhov, like the dreadful Uncle Vanya by Andrew Upton that the Sydney Theatre Company brought to BAM a couple of years ago. Oswald makes reference to prostitutes and opium when he talks to his mother (even in bohemian Paris, he says, he’s kept himself away from both), and when Manders exhibits shock and distaste at Mrs. Alving’s choice of reading matter, he alludes specifically to the pamphlets on her living-room table (they’re proto-feminist), whereas in the original Ibsen we have to guess what she’s perusing. (I’ve always assumed she was absorbed in Darwin and Marx.) None of these choices seems problematic, but his final one is. At the end of the play, after Oswald has had an attack that has turned him into a cretin begging his mother for “the sun,” Mrs. Alving has to decide whether or not to end his life, as he asked her to, by handing him morphine pills. Ibsen deliberately doesn’t tell us in which direction her maternal love for him leads her. Unhappily, Eyre does. It’s not the first Ghosts I’ve seen in which the eagerness of the director to think through the text has resulted in an overdetermination of the ending.

The ending is a bad mistake, but it’s Eyre’s only real one. The production, designed by Tim Hatley (sets and costumes) and Peter Mumford (lighting), is magnificent to look at, like Manet canvases come to life. The underlighting – until the dawn breaks through, ironically, in the last scene – accentuates the idea of the damp, foggy Norwegian climate as a metaphor for the frigid, corseted, blinkered society, unable to reach the light because it’s mired in traditions and mores that keep the truth well hidden. Hatley’s set is full of spectral reflective images, and the upstage wall that divides the living room from the dining room is a scrim behind which, at the end of the first act, Oswald flirts with Regina, recalling to Mrs. Alving her husband with Johanna. The fact that the model of the orphanage sits just downstage of the scrim reminds us that this memorial to a secretly and utterly corrupt man is a grandiloquent piece of public fakery. I’ve never seen a production of the play that is ghostlier visually. For Ibsen, of course, the ghosts aren’t just of the dead Captain Alving and Johanna but also of ancient, moldy thinking that, in Mrs. Alving’s phrase, we allow to haunt us because we’re so afraid of daylight.

The entire cast of five is excellent. If Eyre doesn’t use Manders for humor, he gets a kind of brusque, almost farcical comedy out of the interplay between Engstrand (Brian McCardie) and Regina (Charlene McKenna), who is rougher and less an ingénue than she often is: when she breaks self-consciously into French phrases to impress the man she believes to be her father with her superior learning, she still seems to be a peasant. (The ironic effect is like something out of The Cherry Orchard.) Jack Lowden is very fine as Oswald, especially in the final scene. And Manville, whom Americans know mostly from her work in Mike Leigh’s movies – for example, she’s Kitty Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy, whose sexual unhappiness comes unexpectedly to the core in a breathtaking scene with Jim Broadbent – is an extraordinary Mrs. Alving, both commanding and tender. She’s the only actress I’ve seen in the role who gets at the character’s intellectually curiosity without making her too sophisticated, gets at her daring without sacrificing her doubts and the admitted limitations of her courage. When the play comes down to her and Oswald in the second half of the last act, Manville and Lowden bring it a harrowing eruptive intensity unlike anything I’ve seen before in an Ibsen production. Their acting is fearless – and so, you realize, is this great play.

Mark Strong (centre) in Ivo van Hove's production of A View from the Bridge. (All photos by Jan Versweyveld)

For most of the Young Vic production of A View from the Bridge (featured in the National Theatre Live HD series last weekend), the Dutch director Ivo van Hove manages to make Arthur Miller’s bloated, phony play effective in a way that no American director in my experience ever has. He does it by paring it down to essentials. There’s no intermission, and the actors are locked in a rectangular space, designed by Jan Versweyveld, that’s bounded on three sides by glass, with no furniture except a low bench upstage. (They can also sit on the glass that frames the playing area.) All of the English and Irish actors speak with American accents, including Marco (Emun Elliott) and his brother Rodolpho (Luke Norris), the two Italian “submarines” – illegal aliens – that the longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong) and his wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker) welcome into their Brooklyn apartment (they’re Beatrice’s cousins), so the distinction between the Americans and the immigrants loses its theatricality. The interaction of the performers, which also include Phoebe Fox as Beatrice’s niece Catherine, Michael Gould as the lawyer Alfieri, and Richard Hansell in the small role of Eddie’s fellow worker Louis, who brings Marco and Rodolpho off the ship, has a ferocious authenticity. In one scene, where the Carbone family and the two brothers sit in tense proximity, van Hove employs long pauses to underscore the anxiety and distractedness of the characters, especially Eddie and Beatrice. Somehow he manages to use Pinter stylistics here to create an emotional layering that feels like the purest American Method. It’s a shame that he throws it all in about twenty minutes from the end, substituting melodrama for drama and ending with a theatrical coup that’s so preposterous that it made me giggle to myself.

Michael Gould, Phoebe Fox (centre), and Emun Elliot.
Brilliant as most of the production is, though, you never quite forget that the play is pretty terrible. It’s Miller’s attempt at a modern version of a Greek tragedy, with Freudian overtones and a chorus in the form of the lawyer (who has the worst lines in the script, like “The law is a word for what has to happen”). Eddie and Beatrice have raised Catherine (her mother, Bea’s sister, died when she was young), and now that she’s approaching eighteen his possessiveness has become unnerving: he objects to her taking a job, he objects to any boy who shows an interest in her, and when she falls for Rodolpho he goes a little crazy. Beatrice realizes what neither he nor Catherine does – that his affection for his niece is sexual. But a drama about a man’s incestuous desire for his niece wasn’t enough for Miller, who had to encase it in a faux tragedy about betrayal and vendetta. At the beginning of the play we hear about others in this working-class neighborhood who have called Immigration to report “submarines” and been ostracized by the community, and this heavy-handed and unconvincing dramaturgical apparatus is imposed uncomfortably on the action to make it feel bigger and more important than it is. And we know, of course, what’s going to happen (just as Alfieri the lawyer says he knows when Eddie comes to see him for advice): that Eddie is going to blow the whistle on Marco and Rodolph in an attempt to dissolve Catherine and Rodolpho’s romance.

Of the principal actors, Norris, though he’s talented, is the only one whose performance feels fussy, perhaps because the others are so economical. Fox makes Catherine’s love for her uncle, which expresses itself in an unconscious childlike physicality from the very first scene (when she greets him by leaping into his arms with her legs around his waist), so immediate and her trust in him so deep that when her relationship with Rodolpho upsets and alienates him she’s baffled – like a kid whose gentle, devoted parent has unaccountably hauled off and slapped her across the face. Elliott conveys Marco’s gratitude toward Eddie for housing him and his brother and, linked to it, his nervousness when Eddie turns against Rodolpho and his desperation to smooth over what cannot, in fact, be smoothed over. In the pivotal role of Beatrice, whose loyalty to her husband wars with her anguish over his behavior, Walker gives a simultaneously sensitive and tough-minded performance. And Mark Strong, a phenomenal actor, is powerful and moving as Eddie. When Liev Schreiber played this role on Broadway in the last major revival of the play (opposite a splendid Scarlett Johannson as Catherine), his beautifully layered portrayal – the best work I’ve ever seen from him – focused on the man’s torment; he seemed to be trapped in a sort of existential hell. Strong emphasizes Eddie’s profound ignorance of who he is despite the macho confidence with which he carries himself. No one is ever going to turn A View from the Bridge into a good play, but it’s given us the opportunity to see two astonishing actors struggle with it.

***

In 2000, the quirkily gifted filmmaker Michael Almereyda released an updated Hamlet I loved, but he doesn’t have the same success with his new Cymbeline. He puts Shakespeare’s romance in an action-picture setting where the King of the Britons, Cymbeline (Ed Harris) is the leader  of a motorcycle gang and the Romans to whom he refuses to pay any more tribute are corrupt cops. Cymbeline is a fairy tale with a ridiculously convoluted plot that involves hidden identities, faked deaths and other kinds of trickery. You can decorate Hamlet with the trappings of modern movie genres without damaging its essence, but when Almereyda tries to do the same with Cymbeline, he’s shifting genres, and there’s not enough left of Shakespeare’s play to justify the project. Moreover, most of the actors, including Dakota Johnson as the heroine, Imogen (Cymbeline’s daughter), Penn Badgley as her exiled husband Posthumus, and Delroy Lindo as Belarius, who has secretly raised Cymbeline’s sons, lack the training to make the verse sing. I liked Harris, Milla Jovovich as his baby-doll wife (Imogen’s wicked stepmother), and Anton Yelchin as her son Cloten (who covets both Imogen and his stepfather’s throne).  And Ethan Hawke (the star of Almereyda’s Hamlet) gives a fascinating performance as Iachimo, whose villainy against Posthumus and Imogen is as mysterious as the elements of a fairy tale are meant to be.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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