Europe at the Donmar Warehouse review ****

Europe

Donmar Warehouse, 6th August 2019

I have been mightily impressed with the two adaptations by David Greig, the AD of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, that I have seen to date. The Suppliant Women, based on Aeschylus’s The Suppliants, which came to the Young Vic a couple of years ago, benefited from an excellent professional and amateur cast, some superb movement/choreography courtesy of Sasha Milavic Davies and music from percussionist Ben Burton and double aulos-ist (is that a thing) Callum Armstrong, but it was Mr Greig’s rhythmic text which powered the whole thing on. As for his skill in bringing Joe Simpson’s mountaineering epic, Touching the Void, to the stage, (which also features stunning movement work courtesy of Ms Davies), well I strongly suggest you make up your own mind and snap up a ticket for the transfer to London at the Duke of York’s. It was one of my top ten plays of 2018 at its original run in Bristol for good reason.

I am also set to see DG’s latest adaptation, Solaris, based on the 1961 novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, made into a brilliant film by master Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and then subsequently sharpened up by Steven Soderbergh in 2002. If you like your science fiction to be all crash, bang, wallop, dispense-with-plot-and-character, CGI-fest, then this is not for you. It’s claustrophobia always felt like a good fit for the theatre to me and from the sound of the reviews from the current run in Edinburgh so it has proved, Can’t wait. And I should also probably consider seeing the Old Vic’s musical version of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero next year where DG will write the book, though the involvement of one Mark Knopfler in the music department worries me. (In the Tourist’s post-punk musical heyday of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Dire Straits were the enemy of taste, no question).

Sadly though I had never seen any of DG’s original plays. I see there have been relatively recent revivals of Midsummer and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, and I would hope that one day soon the likes of The Events and Dunsinane reappear based on the reactions to their original outings. For the moment though I will make do with Europe, DG’s first ever play from 1994, and this marvellous revival at the Donmar Warehouse which Michael Longhurst choose to direct as the opener in his first season as the new AD at the Donmar. Big boots to metaphorically fill after Josie Rourke but with this production, Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s Appropriate and the revival of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away to come, he seems to be firmly on the right track.

Now if you had told me that the prophetic Europe was written in the 1930’s, or yesterday, I would have a) been very surprised since I don’t know you and b) even more surprised that you were actually reading this blog. But, limp jokes aside, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised, (an impression shared in the proper reviews). It is set in a mittel-European border town, a place, we sense, with a rich history, but now left-behind, chiefly known for “soup and lightbulbs”. Specifically we are taken to a railway station where young Adele (Faye Marsay) dreams of escape from her life and job as assistant to officious station-master Fret (Ron Cook). Adele is married to Berlin (Billy Howle who spends most of his time whinging and drinking with his jobless mates, the realist Billy (Stephen Wight) and proto-fascist Horse (Theo Barklem-Bigggs). Refugees from former Yugoslavia, Sava (Kevork Malikyan), and his daughter Katia (Natalia Tena), pitch up at the railway station one night. And stay. Initially to the consternation of Fret. But, after the train service is closed, he and Sava strike up a friendship and protest and Adele starts to break down Katia’s many emotional barriers. The three men however turn against the incomers and, when he returns from his travels, their childhood friend, the spivvish Morocco (Shane Zaza).

The story plays out, Brecht like, over twenty, titled, episodes. But Chloe Lamford’s scrupulous set, Tom Visser’s lighting and Ian Dickinson’s superb sound are anything but Brechtian. Even so Mr Longhurst’s direction still manages to draw out the thick metaphor in DG’s text, creating a universal out of this fascinating particular. This may be 1994, but Europe has seen this many times before, including right now, and, shamefully, will likely see it all again even, as it will, peace and tolerance triumph. (Always remember the bad guys know they are doing wrong: that is why they spend so much time and effort trying to deny and hide it). I gather Mr Greig has dealt with the themes of the cultural, personal and political differences between us, and specifically the fiction of borders and the plight of refugees, before but I wonder if he has done so as eloquently as here. I would like to find out if anyone fancies reviving his work.

That this Donmar production is so persuasive is also down to the excellent cast. Now normally when the Tourist says all the actors are tip-top he doesn’t really mean it. There are often stand-outs. He is just too polite to draw attention to them. Here though the entire ensemble shines. I am a huge fan of Ron Cook and here he matched his performances in Faith Healer, The Children and The Homecoming. I don’t think I had seen Turkish actor Kevork Malikyan before, other than in the best forgotten At Tale of Two Cities in Regent’s Park, but here he lends Sava immense dignity in the face of crushing adversity. Similarly I only know Natalia Tena from her turn as a Wildling in you know what, and that LD has a soft spot for her Potter role. Here she revealed a woman whose life experience leaves affection and trust as luxuries she simply cannot afford. I remember Faye Marsay and Shane Zaza from John Tiffany’s exemplary revival of Jim Cartwright’s road at the Royal Court a couple of years ago and Billy Howle I also remember from his performance as Galileo’s student in the Young Vic Life of Galileo. Both Theo Barklem-Biggs and Stephen Wight have familiar faces through TV roles but, on these performances I would like to see them on stage again.

The big, wide, “globalised” world is a scary place. But then again so, often, is home. Whether to stay or go feels like a question far too many have to grapple with. Europe with a mix of aggression, humour, tenderness and intelligence examines this dilemma through pointed narrative and character.

BTW is you want to see how a bitter tw*t at the other end of the humanity spectrum saw the play read the Spectator review. All the tired cliches and preposterous exaggeration. It must be hard work being this p*ssed off about everything all the time. Apparently “most borders are the product of geography”. Not history, politics or economics then. Unintentionally hilarious. I promise you I know a bit about this and I can assure you my academic specialism doesn’t wield that much power. Remember don’t let the idiocracy grind you down good people.

road at the Royal Court Theatre review ****

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road

Royal Court Theatre, 7th September 2017

Another useless review as this revival of Jim Cartwright’s seminal debut play is about to end its run. But I would be pretty confident it will pop up again somewhere in the next few years. And that is because, as this production shows, despite it being set firmly in the mid 1980s, it is as relevant today as it was then.

The play is set on an unnamed road in an unspecified Lancashire town, largely, over one night. The vignettes are threaded together by our pukish narrator Scullery, here played by Lemn Sissay, of whom more later. We alternate between scenes of raucous comedy and tragic monologues (and most memorably an affecting duologue). The dignity of labour is in short supply in this part of the North, money is tight and hope crushed by circumstance. So most of the residents are focussed on living for today with lashings of booze and sex offering release. For some characters though the absence of money, of love, of friends fuels nostalgia, or worse, despair.

Now too often this set-up can turn into a theatrical misery fest. What makes this different is Jim Cartwright’s beautiful writing. It is a cliche but there is real warmth and poetry here. The words are so powerful that you feel you immediately know these characters despite there being no attempt to provide a before of after to their lives outside this night. He doesn’t need to bash you over the head with the message and never offers up caricatures or stereotypes. John Tiffany’s expert direction does not deny the irony of a bunch of well heeled punters in Sloane Square gawping at a bunch of actors playing those left behind in “Thatcher’s Britain”, but still allows the pathos to shine through. I haven’t the faintest idea how we reconcile the social, economic and cultural divide between the haves and haves nots in this country today but road remains a powerful document of that divide.

Chloe Lamford’s set is a model of effective economy, with a glass lightbox acting as a device to frame some of the key scenes/monologues and heighten the voyeurism. And John Tiffany, much like in his recent Glass Menagerie (The Glass Menagerie at the Duke of York’s Theatre review ****), with lighting designer, Lee Curran, takes the opportunity to plunge the backdrop into darkness at the crucial moments. I gather this makes for a very different (and shorter) experience to the original promenade version of the play but it facilitates absolute audience concentration. For an ageing post-punk type like me the soundtrack was also a joy – an ensemble routine set to the Fall’s Hit the North was the highlight. There is a parallel between the poetry of Mark E Smith (just to remind you the greatest songwriter of all time) and Jim Cartwright’s lines. I even tolerated Elbow as the backing to a surprisingly effective conclusion involving the whole cast.

And the cast were excellent. I have seen the TV version of the play with the mix of cast members from the original Royal Court productions and other acting luminaries and, for me, this troupe matched them (though as the play is so well written that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise). I think I have heard Lemn Sissay, the poet and broadcaster, on the radio but his performance here was terrific and I now see from his biography what an admirable man he is. Michelle Fairley shows just how powerful an actor she is as hilarious seductress Helen, and then again as the desperate, wheedling Brenda. I am so looking forward to her Cassius in the forthcoming Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre with Ben Whishaw, David Calder and David Morrissey – surely a winner. Mark Hadfield similarly shows, firstly, his comic timing as pissed lothario Brian and, secondly, his ability to invest imagery into Jerry’s nostalgic reminiscences. June Watson as lonely pensioner Molly nearly brought a tear to my eye, I kid you not. Mike Noble’s curious Skin-Lad is the one ostensibly violent character in the plan and his missive was delivered with real menace and mystery.. Faye Marsay as Clare, (hard to believe this was her stage debut), and Shane Zaza (watch this young man) as Joey, really hit home with the play’s most astonishing scene as the young couple who have literally given up on life. Liz White as Valerie delivered another affecting monologue lovingly bemoaning her workless, drink addled, pathetic husband. She also played Carol, who, along with Mike Noble now as Eddie, Faye Marsay now as Louise and Dan Parr as Brink, deliver the final, famous (at least to me), epiphanous scene with total conviction, helped of course by the voice of the master, Otis Redding.

So any way you look at it this was an excellent and worthy revival, of a masterly play on the stage where it premiered. I haven’t seen any of Mr Cartwright’s other plays, including Little Voice, either on the stage or TV, though not for want of trying. I hope I shall. And I highly recommend you find a way to see road. I suspect that, unfortunately, its power or concerns will not diminish through time.