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Theatre Review Europe ahead of its time

Written 25 years ago, there's an unnerving prescience to this brilliant play in the era of Brexit, says JAN WOOLF

Europe
Donmar, London

THIS fine production of David Greig’s play by the Donmar’s new artistic director Michael Longhurst is set in a shabby train station on the point of closure in an anonymous Mitteleuropa border town.

All its charm and cultural identity are gone and its inhabitants — whose accents, interestingly, are northern British — yearn for work or escape.

They are becoming nowhere people from a nowhere place trying to grasp a sense of their future, as are two refugees from war-torn former Yugoslavia. The father sleeps on the station seats, with his head resting on his adult daughter’s lap, while she stares desolately into space.

They seem initially to be merely an element in the bleak setting as the local characters begin to define themselves. The only person with a sense of purpose and a secure identity is stationmaster Fret (Ron Cook, superb) who’s all comedic, bristling efficiency and timetables —  until trains are cancelled and the timetables rendered meaningless.  

At first annoyed by the refugees, he finds common ground with the father Sava (Kevork Malikyan), a decent, cultured man who worked on the railways in his home country.  

Daughter Katia (Natalia Tena) remains desperate to get away and forms a romantic attachment with railway worker Adele (Faye Marsay), who loves to get up on the station roof early in the morning to watch the arrival of a train snaking through the forest, full of people “going somewhere.”

For her, this represents escape from a town “you can die in but not live” and marriage to a man (Billy Howle, in fine form) she now loathes. His life, with no job prospects, is shattered  

Trains we never see but whose presence we nevertheless sense are beautifully used as metaphor for escape, romance and possibly death.  

It’s perhaps inevitable that audiences will bring their own readings of the Leave/Remain debate to a play written a  quarter of a century ago, although the case for Leave could be made by its depiction of beached workers becoming violent as their homeland denies them a future.  

There’s a parallel with nazi Germany too as one man, choked with grief, waves goodbye to a best friend chancing his luck elsewhere, the wave extending into a nazi salute.

The “cosmopolitan” character Morocco (Shane Zaza), with an eye for the main chance and who  believes a border to be “a magic money line,” senses fiscal opportunities in people’s suffering and trades a fake passport for sex with Katia. The violence dealt to him, as well the refugee father earlier is sickening.  

This terrific play, freighted with foreboding, is also a romance and a comedy.  Much of the dialogue, like the forest wolves dragging away the town’s rubbish in bin bags, is elliptical or surreal.

It gives the audience, whichever way they voted in the referendum, space for imagination and the long view and that’s aided by Bret Yount’s fight direction, Chloe Lamford’s set and lighting and sound design by Tom Visser and Ian Dickenson.

They all merit the highest praise in what's a masterpiece of writing, direction, acting and technical creativity to create this  metaphor for a continent under the corporate spell.

Runs until August 10, box office: donmarwarehouse.com

 

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