Writer: Tony Kushner
Director Seb Harcombe
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
Until the 16th of August, this is going to be one of the more difficult plays to watch on the London theatre circuit. A two and a half hour long castigation of politically interested but physically lazy activism and armchair revolutionism is going to cause a lot of uncomfortable reflection on the parts of the audience when considering real world political events. Combine that with the weather we may expect until the 16th, and the lack of a draught in the Southwark Theatre’s small space and you have a pressurised hotbox, ramping up the emotional and atmospheric heat as we reach a screaming, intense conclusion. Whether one likes the play or not (and there are plenty of things that may turn an audience member off it), it will leave an impact and will become a mental reference point for any thought of mass political action for years to come.
Beginning in 1932 the plot follows a group of friends, loosely aligned with the German communist party (KPD), as they recognise the danger fascism presents, their debates on the topic and attempts to resist it, and the eventual impact the united right will have on Germany as we come towards the end of the 1930’s. Set in one apartment, time is market with blackouts. Without external knowledge of the political shifts in 1930s Germany we have no time reference, but it’s not needed here, we can see the world outside the four walls crumbling from within this vantage point.
As an allegorical study into what can happen on a micro and macro level when individuals recognise danger and waste their time talking about it privately without doing anything about it, it works remarkably well. The work seethes with guilt and shining revolutionary zeal. Monologue speeches dripping with meaning are spread throughout, making cases for action or excuses for the lack of it. As a historical presentation it is also superbly rendered. Here is pre-war Germany, presented on an eminently relatable, domestic, level.
It stumbles slightly with the supernatural elements to the story. There’s more than enough material without bringing in ghosts and hallucinations and when they come they’re quite distracting. As the devil Jonathan Leinmuller is as dangerous and threatening as everything else outside the apartment, but it feels that the point made by his appearance could have been made in a much neater way in the real world, perhaps through one of those speeches Kushner is so fond of. As a device to link that time with a more modern era, using an American student in the 80’s who feels the ghosts of these earlier players in the apartment in Berlin is fine. It serves a purpose. She even says some useful things at times. But why taint her legitimacy by giving her a belief in absurd conspiracy theories (the letters in President Reagan’s name make up 666 so, you know, obviously significant).
Overall, there are some sparkling moments. The language used shifts from almost Beat-like poetry, creating beautiful images and phrases, in the first half to an elegantly functional language of a terrified population in the second. Although the ending doesn’t quite wrap everything up (not a criticism at all, it’s a very potent ending) there’s a feeling of conclusion through some subtle call and response type mechanics. For example we hear one of the characters note of another that they have a way, when drunk, of making trivial and boring thoughts extremely eloquent. This is recalled with the rhetoric of impotent revolution “without justice, there can be no beauty”.
It’s a well crafted play and under Seb Harcombe’s direction is a fierce contribution to politically themed theatre. Top quality performances all round from a young but experienced cast (Alana Ramsey as actress and apartment owner Agnes and her lover, the Hungarian filmmaker Husz are intense, vigorous, vulnerable and an absolute trip to watch) and visually engrossing set design from Olivia Du Monceau make this good play great. Southwark Playhouse is building its reputation as a home of politically brave and intelligent theatre. A Bright Room Called Day will enhance that reputation and more than that, has every chance of changing the politics of those who witness it during these internationally difficult days.
Runs until the 16th of August.
Photo: Jack Sain