Site specific theatre is nothing new in
Scotland; from the numerous innovative creations by the likes of Grid Iron
Theatre Company to much of the work by the “without walls” National Theatre of
Scotland, performances in non-theatrical settings can ensure an impact—when
everything works—difficult to reproduce within the safe traditions of the proscenium arch. The twist with Bridget Boland’s
Boland’s script resonates deeply
So, Edinburgh’s Victorian-built Royal Lyceum Theatre is itself part of the drama, playing a provincial German theatre soon after the conclusion of the War in Europe in 1945. It is bedecked with roughly-made signs—“No Fighting”,”No Carrying Firearms”, “No Knives Longers Than 3 Inches”—and littered with scattered possessions. Requisitioned by the British only the day before, it’s already filled up with roughly 1,000 DPs—Displaced Persons. “The whole of Europe under one roof,” as Deka Walmsley’s Sergeant Barnes describes it, one of two British soldiers in charge of preparing the DPs for transport East or West.
Barnes is experienced enough to split up the different nationalities up, aware that former neighbours are likely to be the most volatile. (The exception: “Dutch, you can put them anywhere.”) However, Peter Hannah’s well-meaning, but weary Captain Ridley is determined to carry out his orders, splitting everyone on whether they’re headed for the American or Russian Zones. When told of the potential fear and violence this will cause, he insists that “Sooner or later they’ll have to live together.” It doesn’t take long for one of the DPs in his care to point out: “You British don’t understand Europe.”
This is only one of many moments when Boland’s script resonates deeply; with the UK’s long-troubled and troubling view of a monolithic Continent, or today’s social-media-fuelled condemnation of anyone who doesn’t share your beliefs. “No man has the right now to be on the wrong side,” says one of DPs, as post-War retribution on Collaborators is demanded. “She’s too clever by half,” says another of an academic, echoing back to us in a distrust of experts and facts. Time and again, it’s difficult to believe that this oh-so-contemporary play was actually written in 1947!
Taking the action beyond the Royal Lyceum’s stage, while also placing some of the audience on it, Wils Wilson’s production benefits from several emotionally committed performances from her 12-strong cast (not least Kaisa Hammarlund as former French Resistance member Marie, and Alexandra Mathie as The Professor) which, remarkably, feels even larger during the course of the action. Matt Padden does a great job in making us feel the passing of military vehicles outside the building, while Aly Macrae’s musical score—a mix of Eastern European styles, performed by the cast between scenes—gives the whole thing a contemporary vibe.
When the possibility of Bubonic Plague raises its ugly head within the building, the quarantined DPs show what can be achieved by working together—contrasted against Captain Ridley’s frustrated “Democracy is what you’re going to get, whether you like it or not!” And when Sandra Kassman’s amnesiac sings from La Traviata, it’s proof that it’s not just common fears which can hold us together. The question the play doesn’t answer, however, is whether that’s enough.