Writer: David Greig
Director: James Brining
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
For the last couple of years, there hasn’t been a day gone by without Brexit being front page news. It is no surprise, therefore, that David Greig’s Europe is being staged by Leeds Playhouse as the UK’s departure from the European Union looms. A timely yet timeless play it has much to say about a shifting world and the fallout this inevitably brings.
Greig’s play, although first staged almost 25 years ago, is as apt in 2018 as it was in 1994. It could be a snapshot of history from almost at any time in twentieth-century Europe or, unfortunately, twenty-first century Europe also. Set in an unnamed dying town somewhere in post-war Balkans where even the trains no longer stop, it continues many of the themes from Jim Cartwright’s Road – previously performed by Leeds Playhouse’s current repertoire acting ensemble. Indeed it could be anywhere in any European country. Identity, desperation, distant hope and microcosm versus macrocosm prevail though both plays. As Theresa May is finding out, simplicity is something unobtainable in the complex patchwork of Europe.
This is a play of metaphors. Indeed the title itself throws up a whole spectrum of connotations – cohesion; difference; marriage; divorce. The sign outside the station reads ‘No Trains’. Station Master Fret (Jospeh Alessi) pours over the timetables of intercity trains that pass through yet no longer stop. Two refugees (Sava and Katia) sit on the platform, silently waiting for the next leg of their life journey. Perpendicular, right-angled chalk marks on the floor delineate separate spaces. The opening of the play feels Beckettian in style and breath, especially with characters seemingly stuck in a limbo, but Greig’s play becomes a discussion on the nature of continental relations and, in particular, the notion of the border. Amanda Stoodley’s stage design lays a railway track at the foot of the stage immediately conjuring a fourth wall – of us and them, audience and performer, fact and fiction? This visual device becomes about being on the right or wrong side of the tracks, a line that only exists because a nation has enforced it and imposed rules that govern either side.
As the station worker Adele (Tessa Parr) beautifully comments that a border can just be a piece of wire with the same topography on either side. Wheeler-dealer Morocco (Darren Kuppan) brags that he is not a smuggler, rather a magician conjuring a trick as he moves contraband over boundaries. Berlin (Dan Parr) represents the far right with his firm belief that borders should be borders to prohibit foreign immigration. But Greig and director James Brining explore the idea of border further as lines become hazy: actors at times venturing off the stage; the neat chalked outlines onstage becoming brushed and blurred; Grieg’s use of split scene dialogue and Adele’s sexuality as she moves from stagnant and abusive relationship with husband (ironically named Berlin) towards fresh and exciting Katia. It is Greig’s discussion of us and them, or here and there that becomes the driving force of the play’s debate.
As a political piece of theatre, it is inevitable that narrative becomes secondary to the exploration of ideas. Greig deliberately writes characters that are not quite three dimensional: vessels to discuss the political rather than to engage in the emotional. That said, Brining wants the audience to feel the separation and anxiety of loss, especially as Katia bids farewell to her tired father as she wants to keep traveling to find the new rather than dwelling in the past. At times, the play could do with a slight trim or for the pace to be a little more varied, as although the topics are genuinely of interest, there is some repetition and occasions where the play needs to move forward a little more dynamically than it does. Greig writes with beautiful poetic imagery as Fret, who becomes mentor to Sava, exude their love of the railway and Katia radiates how the early morning fast train makes her feel as it powers through her decaying hometown on the way to almost unreachable and exotic European cities.
After a terrible summer for Northern Rail and with Brexit hanging on the lips of every Westminster politician Europe is a play that sits pretty comfortably in the current climate. However, it will sit just as comfortably in another 25 or even 50 years. Transience and stagnation in an ever-changing world will keep this play forever relevant. And with the cyclical rise of the far-right wing and fascism in Europe, Berlin’s final line of the play, that they are also Europe, becomes a terrifying proclamation of the difficulties of human nature when it comes to cohesion.
Reviewed on 16th October 2018 | Image: Contributed