"One of the cast, Phoebe, came out here before the original production and took some pictures," says Mark Strong. "It was winter, so it looked particularly bleak."
Now Strong is getting his own first-hand look at that bleak locale, otherwise known as Red Hook, Brooklyn, the setting of A View from the Bridge. The Arthur Miller drama is now at the Lyceum Theatre in a new staging by Ivo van Hove and starring Strong as Eddie Carbone, the longshoreman who is the play’s central, tragic figure.
Though Red Hook has experienced a fair amount of gentrification in the past decade, the Belgian streets of this waterfront community still retain a desolate, hardscrabble air that would have been familiar to the characters in Miller's play. As he spoke, Strong was sitting in a booth in Sunny's Bar, a frozen-in-time Red Hook tavern, just feet from New York Harbor. One of the oldest businesses in the neighborhood, it is a place that Eddie could have visited.
Bridge is Strong's first play in 12 years. Since his last foray onstage, he's become a film star, acting in "The Imitation Game," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," and "Kingsman: The Secret Service." Tellingly, a copy of the play was tucked in the middle of a pile of movie scripts he was considering. When he finally got to View's script, he says, "It was just so much better than anything else I'd been reading."
The play — which Miller said he based on a story he had heard about an actual Brooklyn longshoreman — concerns the righteously upright Carbone, who remains blind to his growing and improper obsession with his niece, Catherine (played by Phoebe Fox, the shutterbug), who he’s raised from childhood. Trouble ensues when two of Eddie's wife's cousins, desperate for work, come from Italy to stay with them. A relationship grows between Catherine and one of the immigrants, Rodolfo.
Strong studied English and Drama at university, and had read the Miller play then. "In the context of that time, I suppose I thought his plays were very traditional," says Strong. "He was a classic American playwright. And that's how I always thought of this play. I hadn't re-read it until just before this production came about."
Nothing could have prepared him, however, for Ivo van Hove's vision of the drama. Belgian director van Hove has a reputation for taking a conceptual sledgehammer to classics by Williams, O'Neill, Molière and Ibsen. Strong had heard of van Hove and his work, but never seen it. Nonetheless, the director made a point of putting the actor at ease.
"When I met him, he said, 'People call me an avant garde theatre director. It's nonsense. I don't see myself like that at all,'" says Strong. "He just sees himself as someone who likes to strip things back, particularly plays that have gotten lost."
Strong was asked to have all his lines memorized before the first rehearsal, something he wasn't used to doing.
"He seemed very serene to me," Strong recalls of van Hove. "He had a very light hand on the tiller. Then we pretty much turned over the page and started on page one. We got the meaning of each scene and every exchange, until, on the last day, we closed the last page and had the first preview. He made us feel like we were discovering it all together, but he'd obviously done an enormous amount of preparation. You know you’re in the hands of someone who has a master plan."
As van Hove treatments go, A View from the Bridge is fairly tame. The performances are largely naturalistic. There are few anachronistic flourishes. But the set is striking, a constricted box surrounded by a low bench and free of furniture or props. Symbolically there is only one way in or out of the playing area.
"People describe it as simple," says Strong. "It's not as simple as it looks. It’s basically an arena." The play typically features a few scenes that take place around a meal. Those meals are now gone.
"Ivo's point," the actor continues, "is you waste too much of your time watching what the actors are doing to try and persuade you that everything is real. It doesn't matter if it’s real. We all know it's not real. We need to tell the story, rather than impress people with how real we can be."
The production's intent seems to have gotten through. Back in London, where the production played to acclaim, Strong ran into playwright Tom Stoppard at a theatre event. "He said, ‘I’m sorry I haven’t come to see your play. I've seen that play so many times! It was only when I started reading the notices that I realized it was something different.'"
There have been few changes on the way from London to New York. The most significant had to do with accents. In London, the actors spoke as they normally would. But van Hove knew that Brooklyn longshoremen with English accents would be jarring for a New York audience. So Strong and his colleagues now speak a vague Brooklynese. The Italian immigrants, however, do not speak with Italian accents, as is usually the case. This is for the same reason: It would sound too artificial and distract from the drama.
Strong recalled van Hove's reaction to an actor's suggestion at a recent rehearsal. "He said, 'Don't do that. It's too much like theatre.'"
See more from Playbill's photo shoot with Strong: