Paul T Davies takes a look at Oliver Bennett’s Europe After The Rain and talks to the cast who are now in rehearsals ahead of a season at the Mercury Theatre Colchester.
I’ll admit to a “humble brag” regarding Oliver Bennett’s surreal, funny and disturbing new play. I was on the reading panel for the Mercury Theatre Playwriting Prize 2017, and, at the second round, I championed Europe After The Rain. In fact, I confidently said, “This is the winner”, one of the few occasions in which I felt I might know anything about plays. It did indeed win, and now the Mercury are about to stage Oliver’s vision, and a wider audience will hear his unique voice. I caught up with cast, James Alexandrou (Will), Simon Haines (Max), Natasha Kafka (Marta) and Anna Koval (Yana) and director Cara Nolan during rehearsals.
The play imagines a near future where the USA has pulled out of NATO, refugees flood into Western Europe, and on a fake beach somewhere in England, the characters gather to hear the outcome of an election that could put a far right party into Government. I started off by asking the cast for their initial thoughts and responses to the play, and with one voice, (although I spoke to them separately), they raved about the quality of the writing. Anna, who plays Yana, is a writer herself, and found herself constantly surprised by the script, “Yana is isolated in her own world, a woman who has had to flee, who needs to be ready to pack up and leave at any moment. What I have discovered during the process, and the back story we have created for her, is that she has a terror of facing the loss and loneliness she has been through, and she has displaced that into actions that are irrelevant, but keep her alive” This has certainly affected her relationship with her daughter Marta, and Natasha Kafka feels this is a perfect play to be making her “straight play” debut in. “She does seem the more mature than her mother”, she says, “but she is more than just a stroppy teenager. She has been dragged from place to place, with good reasons sometimes, but she is desperate to put down roots. The big revelation for me is that Marta comes out with absolute gems of truth, and the other characters need to listen to her!”
For James Alexandrou, the play had a more personal resonance, “As soon as I read it, I felt that these were characters whose voices, (and class), are in danger of being eased out of the stage. I responded on such a visceral and emotional level, and its location is close to my upbringing, and we hear those characters less and less- at least in the complex way they are written here. I’m still in that embryonic stage of finding his character in depth, but going down that “rabbit hole” I am discovering that his anger comes from a place of deep hurt- and that the shadow of his dead father and his actions, has shaped Will’s life forever.”
Will’s father was a far right politician, and his son appears to kick against every belief his father held, but the arrival of Max, Will’s best friend who he hasn’t seen for four years, exposes uncomfortable truths. Simon Haines, who I have watched literally beating himself up for an hour, under the guidance of fight director Craig Hamblyn, loves the story telling of the script, and feels that Max is very much a journeyman, “He is the ferryman type character who moves people from one world to the other. I feel he is very much a shamanic, mystical character, even though he seems like just an ordinary bloke who is lost somewhat. He desperately tries to make things right, until he brings the truth out into the open.”
If all this makes the play seem very worthy, it is worth stressing how funny the play is, and the comedy is as surprising as the revelations. Max, for example, suffers from narcolepsy and occasionally drops to the ground as he suddenly blacks out- this is what Craig has been rehearsing. And for James, the play is funny because the characters are so recognisable, and they all agree that, because Oliver Bennett is also an actor, the rhythm and beats of the play are carefully and beautifully constructed. Surrealism is also funny, and both Anna and Natasha feel that the discoveries they find in the sand, the objects themselves, are like aspects of the characters being discovered, the stage picture is powerful and original. Simon Haines sums it up really well when he says the play has a “dark energy”. It also has a superb soundtrack, mainly courtesy of the character Max.
The enthusiasm that the cast and director have for the play is infectious, and the cynical may say that they are being paid to be enthusiastic. But this isn’t the case here, they are clearly loving the journey of discovery they are making on the script, and once the design is in place, this will be a new play that audiences will remember for a long time.
Europe After The Rain runs at the Mercury Theatre Colchester from 25 May – 9 June 2018