Notable Productions: A View From The Bridge - BackgroundBetween 1986 and 1988, Alan Ayckbourn ran his own company at the National Theatre, London, at the invitation of then Artistic Director Sir Peter Hall. During this sabbatical from Scarborough, Alan directed four plays, including the world premiere of his own play A Small Family Business, but it was his award-winning and hugely acclaimed production of Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge which practically single-handedly changed the perception of Alan Ayckbourn as a director.
Feeling he needed a new challenge by the mid-1980s, Alan accepted an offer proposed by Sir Peter Hall during Alan's production of A Chorus Of Disapproval at the National Theatre in 1985. Hall suggested Alan took a defined break from Scarborough to run his own company at the theatre (at the time, the National Theatre was company-based with several resident companies producing plays for the repertory). The offer was to direct three plays, offering Alan the tantalising hook of a larger acting company, three very different venues and the ability to choose practically any plays he wanted. The only provisos were one of the plays had to be a new Ayckbourn work and that he had to direct a play in each of the National's three spaces.
Alan accepted and was almost immediately joined by the actor Michael Gambon, who agreed to join the company without even reading the new play, such was his regard for and trust of Alan. Together the pair apparently worked out what the other plays would be produced over dinner. The first would be the Aldwych farce Tons Of Money, the second Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge with A Small Family Business completing the trio. In fact, Alan would also go on to direct a fourth play, John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore.
A View From The Bridge was, on the face of it, a strange choice for Alan; at least to London audiences who had not had the opportunity to see Alan direct anything but his own plays. Of course, Alan had been directing a wide variety of plays since 1961 at his home base in Scarborough and from that perspective, no-one would have batted an eye-lid at the choice - Alan had already directed an acclaimed production of Miller's The Crucible in 1979 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.
Historically, A View From The Bridge was an attempt by Miller to write a modern tragedy. It was first produced in New York in 1955 and was a one act verse drama performed in a double bill with A Memory Of Two Mondays. Unhappy with the result and the response to the play, Miller later adapted it into a two act prose drama, although it would still retain an element of the chorus in the form of the lawyer Alfieri. The play was first performed in the UK in 1956 at the Comedy Theatre, London; however this was at a private theatre club as the Lord Chamberlain had banned it for public performance. The play is based in the Brooklyn docklands and centred on a longshoreman called Eddie Carbone. He and his wife, Beatrice, have raised their niece Catherine, whom Eddie deeply loves. Matters are complicated when Beatrice's Sicilian cousins, both illegal immigrants, arrive and one of them, Rodolpho falls in love with Catherine. Jealous of their love, Eddie betrays the brothers to immigration, thus breaking the strict code of honour in the community. When he is found to be the culprit, he is shunned by the community and inevitably comes into a final conflict with the other cousin, Marco, who kills Eddie with his own knife in a fight.
For his production, Alan opted to tackle the play in the intimate Cottesloe Theatre. This decision meant the production had the lowest budget of his three productions, which extended to having to rehearse outside the National Theatre in, as Alan recalls, “church halls in freezing February.”
Alan was unused to the overly generous rehearsal schedule of the National Theatre, being accustomed to rehearsing for no more than four weeks in Scarborough, so in these circumstances, rehearsals were kept moving and the play was ready well in advance of the end of the rehearsal period.
In tackling the play, Alan made several critical decisions on how to approach the work. A View From The Bridge is patently a tragedy and not known for its humour or levity, yet Alan’s experience of tragedy and directing dark plays instinctively told him he had to find the light - which would ultimately make the tragedy all the more telling. Whilst not altering any of Miller’s script, Ayckbourn and the company searched for what lightness and humour there was in the piece and brought it to the fore. This also served the purpose of showing the family of the protagonist, Eddie, happy and in a better light. The inevitable tragedy, which so devastates the family, made all the more affecting by the happiness we have seen this family experience earlier in the play. Alan was also uncomfortable with the fact many of the play’s characters do not appear until very late in the play and he made every effort to introduce the community and characters of the Brooklyn Docklands as soon as possible. This clearly established Eddie and his family's place amongst the close-knit community, which would emphasise one of the major themes of the play with Eddie's betrayal an affront not just to his family, but to the entire community.
Rehearsals, Alan recalls, were extremely happy and Alan believes directing with a light touch, emphasising the warmth and humour of the piece to the last possible moment, served both the cast and production extremely well. Contemporary reports suggest that even by the end of rehearsals, there was a buzz within the National Theatre about the quality of the production. This was confirmed when the first night reviews came in. Practically unanimous in their praise of the production, many of the critics were almost ebullient in their praise for the company and it arguably stands as one of the most well-received productions of Alan's entire career.
The reviews combined with word of mouth ensured the play was an instant hit with huge demand for tickets to see the production. Less than six weeks after its opening, the producer David Aukin was discussing the possibility of a West End transfer with the National Theatre. Alan was naturally delighted by this, but knew that it would have repercussions in the coming months. If, as Aukin wanted, the play was to transfer with cast intact, it would mean losing virtually his entire acting company. With this in mind, Alan would start rehearsals for his play A Small Family Business in April, knowing full well he might have to rehearse an entirely new company to take over within six months should A View From The Bridge transfer.
The clamour around the production and the fact the Cottesloe only held 300 people per performance, made a transfer practically guaranteed and the production closed at the National on 28 September 1987 to re-open at the Aldwych Theatre on 3 November 1987. It ran for a limited season until 22 February 1988, due to Gambon being committed to a production of Uncle Vanya, and garnered equally impressive reviews. The transfer, redirected by Alan, managed to keep the intimacy and power of the original production alive despite moving into a 1,100 seat theatre, which offered a totally different challenge to the actors and director than that which had been presented in the Cottesloe. Keen to capitalise on the success of the play and tantalisingly for such an acclaimed production, there were attempts to record it for both television and the radio. The BBC initially suggested recording the film for broadcast on television, but more effort was expended in an attempt to adapt it for the radio. The process with the BBC actually got to a fairly advanced stage, with Peter King producing the broadcast - who at the time was writing the play The Ballroom to be directed by Alan at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. However, despite all the work, the punishing schedule at the National Theatre proved impractical and despite attempts to record the play in the months after the play closed at the Aldwych, it also came to nothing. The long-term impact of the play is reflected though in the decision by the National Theatre to choose the production to represent the venue's work in 1987 whilst celebrating the 25th anniversary of the company moving to the South Bank.
The critical response to the play may have been overwhelming, but the icing on the cake was still to come. The playwright, Arthur Miller, came to see the production at the National Theatre and declared it was the finest production of the play he had ever seen. The day after the production his wife reported: "A sure sign [of a good play] is if he [Arthur Miller] digs me in the ribs. Last night I was black and blue." It is hard to imagine that one play could have such an immense effect on the perception of Alan’s work, but with A View From The Bridge, Alan's abilities as a director were finally fully appreciated. Rather than a playwright who happened to also direct, Alan's directorial talents now stood on their own merits. To those who had been in Scarborough for the previous twenty years, it was obvious what a good director Alan was. But in London, where Alan had only been seen to direct his own plays, there was perhaps only a grudging respect for his abilities with critics reserving judgement until they had seen him direct something other than his work. This was a personal triumph for Ayckbourn.
Alan had noted how that if he hoped to achieve only one thing in London, his "personal ambition was to establish a reputation as a director." A View From The Bridge would not only achieve this, but would also led to him receiving the Plays And Players Award for Best Director. Michael Gambon would also walk off with a clutch of major awards for his powerful performance as Eddie and in 1999 commented on the experience: "I've never had such a creative fun time in my life."
The critical acclaim for A View From The Bridge combined with the success of A Small Family Business led to a peak in Alan Ayckbourn’s career which has arguably never been topped since. The acclaim for his preceding plays such as A Chorus Of Disapproval and Woman In Mind, to be followed by Henceforward... and Man Of The Moment, combined with Alan’s existing popular reputation led to a period when he was frequently labelled as the most successful and popular playwright in England. Alan’s plays were being seriously discussed and his long-term legacy and impact on British theatre became undeniable.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.