This article originally appeared in Exeunt Magazine in June 2017.
Generations from now, 23 June 2016 will be remembered as the night Britain drunkenly staggered out into the dark, realising too late that it had left its keys, its wallet and its phone in the EU and had no way of getting back in. The nation had spent a long night supping on a bottomless shandy of immigration and sovereignty – incidentally, but not accidentally, two key themes of the Arthur Miller play staged by Belgian theatre collective de Roovers exactly a year after the referendum.
It’s hard to shake the fact that the new political subtext doesn’t fit the production as comfortably as de Roovers might wish. For one thing, it doesn’t feel subversive. Staged en plein air on the Peninsula Quays, in a ward where 70% of voters opted to remain in the EU, the production space is backlit by the glimmering lights of Citibank, Barclays and HSBC – institutional celebrators of migrant capital that are most likely also full of staunch Remainers. It’s also fair to say that immigration per se is not the overriding theme of the source material – it is subordinated to family dynamics and personal obsession, and ultimately gets relegated to a plot device.
Questionable topicalism aside, the production is certainly eccentric. It starts off (unnecessarily) meta: Alfieri, one of the characters, mentions ‘Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge’ in his opening monologue. Much of the play is backed by gently jazzy guitar-and-drum accompaniment, courtesy of Rudy Trouvé, Eric Engels and Youri van Uffelen. Both Miller’s geographical specificity and the actors’ natural accents are retained, so we’re presented with well-assimilated Sicilian immigrants speaking English in Brooklyn with a Belgian twang, which takes some getting used to.
Things aren’t made easier by the casting. A couple of references are made to protagonist Eddie Carbone’s rippling muscles, yet actor Robby Cleiren, while perfectly pleasant to look at and appropriately shambling in shabby workers’ clothes, is no ’50s Brando. He spends much of his first few minutes rooted to a spot with his hands in his pockets, revealing a stasis that may represent his character’s intransigence but deflates the dynamism and vitality of Miller’s dialogue. More distractingly, Sofie Sente, who graduated from drama school 23 years ago, is unable to convincingly play Eddie’s 17-year-old niece Catherine, despite a spirited and committed performance. Luc Nuyens is serviceable as Alfieri, and some of the later exchanges between him and Cleiren’s Eddie are quietly electrifying, but halfway through the play he breaks into a bizarrely convulsive dance for no apparent reason, complete with musical accompaniment. The final words of Miller’s play are Alfieri’s, and they need some sort of rhythmic power, but Nuyens delivers them as a quiet vocal shuffle, so the production ends on an anti-climax.
It’s also unclear what value the re-translation adds. de Roovers originally translated the play into Dutch, and then back into English, but not in a way that seems organic or “internationalist”: many of Miller’s idiosyncratically idiomatic lines, such as ‘In the ground I wish I was!’ or ‘In the garbage he belongs!’, are transposed verbatim to the re-translation. Why re-translate the play at all if you’re going to cleave to the original words so faithfully?
Even if some of the creative decisions are questionable, there is fun to be had and emotion to be felt. de Roovers doesn’t take the endeavour too seriously, so when noisy Aretha-playing party boats float past on the Thames, or planes fly noisily overhead, the production’s unique environment is acknowledged winkingly by the cast, and we’ve allowed a reprieve from the claustrophobia of the text. Wouter Hendrickx, who plays Catherine’s would-be lover Rodolpho, uses his body well and is natural, expressive and vocally lively. Sara de Bosschere is superb as Eddie’s beleaguered wife Beatrice, and provides most of this production’s more poignant moments – she and Sente unleash genuinely moving emotional torrents when they need to. In one pleasant surprise, Nuyens’s Alfieri appears in a ’50s convertible, which he drives around the production space as if it were entirely normal for an actual automobile to do a circuit around performing actors. (de Roovers have been employing this gimmick for years in their productions of the play, and though it doesn’t add anything meaningful, it’s fun to watch.)
Seagulls occasionally hovered over the players and squawked dolefully during some of the more downbeat moments, which might have been offputting but in the event was serendipitous and oddly emotive. Even if the gentrified Docklands doesn’t resemble Red Hook, Brooklyn in the slightest, it was a real and refreshing pleasure to see a play in this setting.