Julian Eaves reviews David Greig’s play Europe now playing at the Donmar Warehouse, London.
28th June 2019
I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to revive this 25-year old play by David Greig. A little while ago, we wondered at the brilliance of his drama, ‘The Events’. Who, then, now wants to be reminded of very much weaker writing?
Ostensibly, this is a play about life at a border railway station, somewhere in the immediately post-cold-war continent of the title. But in fact it’s less of a play and more a collection of writing exercises, with each successive scene taking us into a different ‘zone of influence’: thus, we get scenes ‘inspired’ by the model of Brecht, John Osborne, Chekov, Pinter, and you name it, they pop up. Quite possibly, this is all entirely unintentional on the part of the author, for whom – up to this point – I have had nothing but the highest respect. Nevertheless, there is very little one can do to string together any kind of coherence between what happens or what is said in one part of the performance with any other.
To attempt to overcome this problem, the writing remains steadfastly plain, with the thinly drawn ‘characters’ relying on cliched utterance and formulaic conversational stratagems to guide them through pages and pages of dialogue which are nearly all ‘tell’, with very little ‘show’. Michael Longhurst, the new artistic director at this address, has got the job of trying to give coherence and meaning to all this superficial chat, but it’s an uphill task all the way. One is constantly aware of the efforts being put in by the creative team to try and make this piece come to some sort of theatrical ‘life’, and equally aware of the script’s resolute refusal to respond to treatment. It’s not as if this is a short work, either: there is an interval, and it all goes on for quite a while.
The designer, Chloe Lamford, seems equally at sea about what she should make of it all. Thus, we get a kind of box set station forecourt replica downstairs – thoroughly realistic, and above it, a totally different panorama admonished with a miniature village, rather reminiscent of the mini-Stonehenge provided for the dwarves in ‘This Is Spinal Tap’. Why? A few trucks get trundled on and off providing some unexpected and wholly welcome animation to this static affair: would that the whole concept had been conceived in that way. Tom Visser lights it and he gets a splendid gantry of lights to work some kind of magic in this department: in fact, if you just watched this, and could not understand any English, then you might enjoy the play a great deal more. There is also sound, from Ian Dickinson for Autograph, but he just reinforces the play’s nostalgic similarity to other station-set dramas of the past: indeed, it is as if Arthur Ridley’s ‘The Ghost Train’ has been put through a meat-grinder by Samuel Beckett and then the results jumped on, over and again, by Sarah Kane. Simon Slater composes a rather filmic soundtrack; again, the reason for this rather eluded me, because when he gets the cast to sing – on a couple of occasions – they do so in a thumpingly Hans Eisler-like agit-prop way that has – of course – nothing at all to do with what follows.
Now, in defence of the play, I have to say that some people actually like it. Maybe that is because of the pleasant work of the actors? I’m clutching at straws here. Billy Howle, whom we all (as dedicated consumers of TV box-sets) know and love as the coke-snorting stroke victim in MotherFatherSon, reminds me again and again just how good the script was for that TV show compared with what he is asked to speak here. He gets called ‘Berlin’, which may or may not be a riff on the ‘Paris’ of the Hilton family. Ron Cook gives us a stationmaster with the 18th-century sounding name of Fret, who looks and sounds like he’d be more at home in a live-action kids’ version of ‘Camberwick Green’. His assistant, Faye Marsay’s ‘Adele’, inhabits a different, Caryl Churchill-like universe. She is married to Berlin, but picks up and runs off with Natalia Tena’s Katia. (Spoiler? Honestly, if you don’t see that coming a good hour before it happens, then you need to get out a lot more.)
However, I would like to say a word in Natalia Tena’s defence: she – alone – of all the actors present onstage manages to find some way of negotiating the numerous stylistic and structural pitfalls of this script. Only she seemed believable from the outset and all the way through the part, even if her role – like all the others – eventually made it quite plain that it had nowhere really to go. That was not her fault. The other actors make decisions, one way or another, about what to do with what has been given them, and all of them go down, sooner or later, to the bottom of the substance-less pit that is this play. Kevork Malikyan as Sava (which, as we all know, is the name of the river that flows through Ljubljana, capital of the former Yugoslav Republic of Slovenia), exudes a certain gravitas, but the simple-minded words he is compelled to deliver keep undermining his authority. The trio of pals who bedevil Berlin’s life fare no better: Theo Barklem-Biggs’ Horse (why is he called that?… one is left wondering), Stephen Wright’s Billy and Shane Zaza’s Morocco. For a start, where do these names come from? … and where are they meant to take us?… like the shutdown station, they seem useless and aimless.
I do, though, have a certain interest to declare. In the period in question, between 1988 and 1993, I lived and worked in the actual city of Berlin. There, I witnessed at first hand the upheavals of the collapse of the Comecon, the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union: Berlin rapidly became the nodal point around which all these changes seemed to revolve – I knew that from the first day I looked out of my window and saw, parked across the street, a Mercedes-Benz with a Cyrillic number plate. My friends and acquaintances were drawn from every corner of the decaying communist world, from Laibach in the west to Vladivostok in the east, and – I assure – every single one of them had more to say for themselves than the combined efforts of all the mouthpieces in this unfortunate play.