First published in The Times, Friday October 13 2017
The promotional image for this revival of Bridget Boland’s Cockpit is a frenzied blue scribble in the middle of the map of Europe. The simple image encapsulates the impossible task – depicted in the play – of returning displaced peoples to their countries of origins in the aftermath of World War Two, yet it also speaks eloquently of the inadequacies of the nation state in 2017. Boland’s script feels so up-to-date that it inspires repeated glances at the programme notes to double check that it really does date back to 1948.
The play, given an absorbing and handsome production for the Lyceum by Wils Wilson, takes place in a German theatre in 1945. British soldiers are using the auditorium as a makeshift prison camp for refugees and prisoners. What seems an apparently straightforward business of sorting everyone by nationality and loading them into trucks bound east and west proves a nightmare for the men in charge, Captain Ridley (Peter Hannah), and Sergeant Barnes (Deka Walmsley).
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Faced with bitter clashes between communists and the bourgeoisie, Polish nationalists and a young Jewish mother and members of the French resistance and suspected collaborators, the helpless Ridley can only reach for platitudes as the conflicts mount around him. “What we have been fighting for is democracy,” he says, “and democracy is what you will get, whether you like it or not.” His pronouncement, with its echoes in every western attempt at nation building from Vietnam to Iraq and Libya provokes ripples of derision.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Wilson and her international ensemble expertly handle the gradual build in tension, which is occasionally punctured by nicely judged scenes of collegiate activity and a show stopping sequence in which a young soprano brings everyone briefly together with a rendition of Violetta’s aria from La Traviata.
The only slight disappointment is the staging. Although a portion of the audience is seated on the stage, the Lyceum’s auditorium is not really intimate enough for us to feel as though we are in the thick of the action. It remains, however, a strong and timely production, with its fraught atmosphere enhanced by Kai Fischer’s lighting designs and haunting music composed and arranged by Aly Macrae.