FringeReview UK 2019
Michael Longhurst directs this revival of Europe. Design’s by Chloe Lamford with lighting by Tom Visser and sound design by Ian Dickinson. Simon Slater composition involves an accordion. Imogen knight’s movement and Bret Yount fight director. Till August 10th.
‘This’ declares the fascist recruit Berlin at the end of the eponymous play ‘is Europe’. If David Greig’s Europe seemed prescient in Bosnian-torn 1994 it’s quietly screaming now.
Michael Longhurst’s debut as director – after succeeding Josie Rourke at the Donmar – is as fleet and juddering as the trains flashing through the sound system.
The station at the border of the unnamed small town into which father and daughter drift is about to close: trains are cancelled, they’re informed by railway assistant Adele (Faye Marsay, known from Game of Thrones), and the inimitable Ron Cook as stationmaster Fret. The travellers are evidently from former Yugolsalvia and Fret’s not happy, kicking over their stove and scalding himself. This doesn’t faze either, particularly Sava, Armenian Kevork Malikyan, a slow uncoiling of dignity: his key word.
Adele though is sympathetic and immediately drawn to edgy, stand-offish Katia – Natalia Tena, known for Harry Potter. She tries to interest her in trainspotting every morning at 5.30. It’s Adele’s dream of freedom. The town’s known for soup and lightbulbs.
Her husband Billy Howle’s hapless, confused Berlin, is made redundant as the iron factory closes. He can’t understand Adele’s distance and consorts with his mates thuggish Horse (Theo Barklem-Biggs), and Stephen Wight’s more intelligent, outward-looking Billy, who wants to leave. Just like Adele.
The predominantly faded red design by Chloe Lamford is deceptive. There’s a bare few waiting seats, a small cabin behind, a gantry overheard accessed by a dizzying vertical ladder, later some banners protesting closure; a few props like caged trolleys and a bus stop sign. Nothing prepares us for the surprise this set springs at the end.
Lighting by Tom Visser involves pitch black, and moving strips in a descending rig overhead that enacts the flashing past of Vienna-bound trains. It’s inevitably surrounded in a visceral sound design by Ian Dickinson. Simon Slater’s composition involves an accordion played by Tena, inflecting eastern Europe. Imogen Knight’s continually fluid movement and Bret Yount’s sparing fight direction confirm the stamp of distinction on this ensemble-led play; particularly its two choruses opening each act.
As Katia and Sava slowly integrate with the closed-down station, bonding with Adele and Fret, we’re given a foregrounded blast from Berlin Horse and Billy, as the last draws away and somewhat hurts their feelings by declaring that he feels no loyalty to them or the town.
Greig’s acid-bitten print of youthful alienation is both haunting and dangerous: you can see how each makes choices based on intelligence and temperament. Berlin falls in with the most emotive narrative, from Horse It’s a telling portrait of how people get sucked in.
Meanwhile Shane Zaza’s Morocco, an entrepreneur who explains fluid borders and duty-free, returns to give them free vodka. In this post-communist vacuum, Morocco embodies globalism rendering town and old friends on the scrap-heap. There’s resentment at his bountifulness, a sense he’s buying their friendship, to stave off implicit racism. But Adele knows he might be able to help Katia leave, whilst Sava’s reached the end of his terminal. Conversely Adele wants out too, and not long after Billy departs she hatches a plan, without telling bewildered Berlin.
Two particular relationships stand out: Katia’s gradually warming to Adele, who realizes something for the first time: it’s an edgy ultimately uplifting narrative between Marsay and Tena. As is even more profoundly that between the initially hostile Fret and fellow railwayman as he discovers, Sava. Malikyan and Cook etch a commonality and touching intimacy. ‘600 lives in your hands on an autumn morning’ Fret tells Sava, who knows exactly what he means. Their friendship soars in a fragile lyrical arc. Though all eight actors are equally fine these two pairs find opportunities for even greater shadows: the idea of Europe as a place to connect with, trust, or leave.
The shocking conclusion, with who gets away and who doesn’t, is prepared for with violence along the way and a continual terror of who might be a victim. Grieg’s uncanny genius for stripping back narrative to elemental choice is already apparent. Europe’s border challenges expressed in an ensemble of eight have rarely been realized with this power.