There is a Big Conversation going on in the theatre world and it concerns the fact that People Should Do Better.
All male, mono-cultural casts and creatives on any theatre project are simply not on in 2019, it is generally agreed. When theatre takes money from the public purse, as well it should, it is incumbent upon theatre to reflect the members of the world that are putting their hands in their pockets.
It’s why the people in charge of our theatre institutions have an important responsibility, namely to bring us work that will help ensure this representation happens.
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One of the things theatres are going to have to do is be a little braver with their programming, if this is going to be achieved.
I have to admit that my heart sank a little when I saw A View From the Bridge had been programmed for this coming season at York Theatre Royal.
It’s a beautiful theatre and the play is an undoubted classic, but it’s not particularly brave programming.
Or so I thought.
Juliet Forster, associate director at York Theatre Royal, is an impressive theatre artist who makes interesting decisions. She is at the helm of this new production of the Arthur Miller classic.
“I consider it one of the best plays ever written, an extraordinary text and a brilliant and unforgettable experience as an audience member seeing the play. It’s a play that I really love,” she says.
I agree. I’ve seen a lot of plays in my time as Yorkshire Post theatre critic, but the production from 2003 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse remains a bold memory. But is that a good enough reason to stage it again? Forster thinks it is a play with something to say.
“Look at the climate in this country – and across the world really–– of the shifting attitude and antagonism towards immigration, particularly that idea of economic immigration. The play brilliantly introduces these immigrant characters in a way that allows us to sympathise with them and understand they are not a threat.
“It should be a basic human right that we can move to where there is work so we can feed our family, and this comes through powerfully.
“It’s a really strong theme in the play even though it’s the back story to the central story of what happens to Eddie Carbone.”
Miller’s classic is set in 1950s New York and tells the story of longshoreman Eddie Carbone, an Italian immigrant who lives a life of seeming stability, with the codes of honour and ethics of his community keeping his ship steady.
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When his wife’s Sicilian cousins arrive, his life begins to unravel. It contains some of the last century’s great theatre roles, particularly that of Eddie.
Forster says: “The play also raises questions around different models of masculinity and that’s also something that feels very current to our world.
“It also explores what could drive someone to betray everything they believe in and destroy everything they hold dear – this is what really makes the play so vital and dramatic.
“So you are talking about a fantastic story and brilliant text already, in what feels like a very contemporary setting and a universal story despite being set in 1950s Brooklyn Italian-American community.”
So far, so commendable, but it does call for essentially an all-white cast – usually.
Forster is one of the people doing her bit in the fight for theatre to be as representative as possible.
“I am interested in the migrancy themes in the play, and in some respects I was interested in expanding the relevance of the story beyond the very specific Italian-American setting by recruiting a very mixed cast in terms of ethnicity and nationality, people with roots in lots of different parts of the world, because this is a play that spreads out into being quite a global issue instead of being focussed on just one community.”
Another of Miller’s great works, Death of A Salesman, was recently staged at the Manchester Royal Exchange and is going to be staged at the Piccadilly Theatre in London, both productions featuring a black actor in the lead role of Willy Loman.
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Forster says: “Someone assumed I was using a black cast and transposing the play into that community. That wasn’t what I was thinking.
“In Arthur Miller’s autobiography (Timebends) he talks about going to see an extract from A View from the Bridge done at a drama school performed by a Korean Eddie, a Jewish Beatrice, a Black Marco and a Chinese Rodolpho, and how surprised and moved he was by the raw force of the acting, which stayed with him for a long time.
“Reading that made me want to see that version. The power of the drama, of Miller’s writing and the dynamics of the relationships in the play, seemed to me to be bigger than the confines of the setting, and relevant to all of us.”
A story with a cast as diverse as the streets of contemporary England is exactly the sort of production that British theatre needs right now.
A View from the Bridge runs at York Theatre Royal, September 20 to October 12.
Tickets from the box office on 01904 623568 or online via www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk