Theatre review: Cockpit

Peter Hannah, Aly Macrae and Deka Walmsley, part of a fine cast in Cockpit
Peter Hannah, Aly Macrae and Deka Walmsley, part of a fine cast in Cockpit
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THE sign hanging in the foyer is roughly written in black paint on a tattered white sheet. “Under the control of the allied government,” it says; and in a moment, we are back in Germany in 1945, during the time of starvation and upheaval when the victorious allied powers first came together to provide a transitional government for defeated Germany, divided into four zones.

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh ****

Aly Macrae was just one of the actors who shone in a brilliant production

Aly Macrae was just one of the actors who shone in a brilliant production

Cockpit, by screenwriter Bridget Boland, is a remarkable site-specific play written in 1947, and set in a grand 19th century theatre in a provincial German city which is being used by British troops as a temporary transit camp for refugees from across Europe. It’s a part the Lyceum was born to play: as we enter, there are little makeshift tents and sleeping places in the upper foyers, and on stage and all around the dishevelled auditorium we see director Wils Wilson’s young international company – with roots in Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Albania, Greece, France and Sweden, as well as England and Scotland – wrapped in tattered coats and blankets, and engaged in the great, timeless refugee struggle to keep warm, to eat, to stay alive.

As the show starts, they raise their voices in the terrific, rough harmonies of east European choral music, a sound – brilliantly put together by actor/musical director Aly Macrae – of which it would be good to hear more, throughout the show, but Boland’s narrative is mainly a story of dis-harmony, and of the fierce unreconciled disputes between Poles and Russians, partisans and chetniks, French communists and collaborators, that constantly threaten to destroy the fragile control exercised by a young British officer and his battle-hardened Geordie sergeant.

Boland’s long-neglected play is not really a great piece of drama; the characters are sketchy and often stereotyped, and the political thinking is pretty superficial, as Boland trumpets the idea that “belief is dangerous”, while herself demonstrating a profound belief in the values of democracy and tolerance supposedly represented by the British.

Yet the story and the scenario have the urgency of vital documentary drama: a raw living-newspaper piece, 70 years old, that has suddenly become contemporary again, and that reaches its climax in a moment of redemption through art that speaks volumes about the impulse behind the founding of the Edinburgh Festival, in the year this play was written.

What emerges from this intense and brilliant Lyceum production is an essential show for our time, put together by a world-class Scottish-based team, that takes us back to the raw beginnings of postwar Europe, and forces us to think again about the need to cherish the peace Boland’s generation succeeded in bequeathing to us, against all the odds.

See it or miss the most important, timely and thrilling event to grace and disrupt a Scottish stage any time this year.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Until 28 October