“Director Wils Wilson goes all out to create predicament and danger”
Albert Camus’ La Peste was published in June 1947. The first Edinburgh International Festival was in August 1947. Bruno Walter conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in the closing concert and reckoned that “Here human relations have been renewed”. Bridget Boland’s Cockpit opened at the Playhouse, London, in February 1948 and mashed pestilence and optimism together. Now it’s back, thanks to David Greig, and fit for purpose: a raw and vehement history play, but without princes and kings.
London’s Cockpit theatre was on Drury Lane. It was probably another ‘Wooden O’, built around an actual cock pit. Boland’s play goes one better than Shakespeare’s Henry V, her ‘swelling [and vicious] scene’ holding not only ‘the vasty fields of France’ but the whole of Europe. Cockpit is actually set in a theatre. You get the immersive idea pretty quickly when you notice that the Lyceum has been commandeered by the ‘Allied Government’. It’s late 1945, it’s punishingly cold, and there’s still the reverberation of pulverising bombardment. We’re in the British Zone of Occupied Germany and a theatre is being used as an assembly centre for displaced persons (DPs), hundreds of them. They’re even huddled on the stage. Cast-off clothes are over the backs of the seats. There are ladders from boxes, screened by sacking, to the Stalls and – we’re told – German corpses in the boiler room. Transport is being arranged to take you home (whether you want to go back or not …). You in the Dress Circle are going West. Those of you in the Stalls are going East. Jiri, on stage and silent, is from Lidice and has no home left. Willkommen im Umwelttheater!, as ingeniously constructed by designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita.
It is a babel of Slavic voices and trouble. But surely a British officer can sort this lot out, provided he has a desk and reason on his side. Young Captain Ridley has been detached from his regiment because he has School Certificate German. He does have his service revolver. His sergeant, Sergeant Barnes, has no German, just loud Geordie and a Sten gun. Between them they put on a brave ‘show’ – in the choice Army sense of the word – but there’s a limit to how long they can just ‘Carry on’.
Conflict starts with ‘Who’s pinched my sauce pan?’ and very quickly turns serious, not least because the Poles hate the Jews ( – ouch!) and the Russians will kill the Poles and the Chetniks will kill anybody, especially socialist partisans. A French collaborator – but forced labour would qualify that – is certain that Marie, a Resistance fighter, will falsely denounce him. Add infectious disease and Capt. Ridley is in a desperate jam. There is some rallying round but a different kind of ‘show’ is needed to relieve the tension; after all, we’re in a playhouse. When it comes, two thirds through, we get an operatic cloth and a bravura performance from Sandra Kassman.
This is Boland’s brilliant conceit. When the German stage manager, Bauer, says “You will need the theatre – afterwards”, you believe him. And when faced with the possibility that his theatre – probably one of the few buildings left standing in his flattened city – might be burnt down to halt contagion, the man is stricken with sadness. Bauer (Dylan Read), as comic denizen of his place, living in the flies, and true Propsmeister, is almost the only source of laughter in an otherwise sombre drama. Read also plays Duval, whose occasional spoken French, is so good that you appreciate the difficulties of staging a script that demands heavily accented English from several characters. Whatever ‘European’ means, this cast is it.
Director Wils Wilson goes all out to create predicament and danger. A chant is either angry or sorrowful and certainly incomprehensible (unless you’re Romanian). Rush and hurry can subordinate the personal stories. There is a stretch of choreographed movement for the whole company that would express the plight of the displaced anywhere, at any time. The excellent music by Aly Macrae is often discordant and broken, except for the quiet piano at the beginning of the second half. Capt. Ridley (sturdy by Peter Hannah) might be resolute, almost heroic, but it’s not enough. There is a passing mention of a major somewhere else but the chain of command appears well and truly absent, which will irritate Army types.
Cockpit is bold work, both then and now. It is theatrical but – more importantly – it’s humane. A Russian DP proclaims “20 million Russians died. It must not happen again”. That’s from the Stalls, going East. Primo Levi, after Auschwitz and going West, got it exactly right: ‘It happened, therefore it can happen again’.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 10 October)
Go to Cockpit at the Lyceum
Visit Edinburgh49 at the The Lyceum archive.