‘You don’t understand anything about Europe’: 1947 play Cockpit blazes back

时间:2019-08-29 责任编辑:冀崞 来源:澳门赌博网址导航 点击:137 次

Bridget Boland’s play Cockpit opened in London in February 1948, in the long shadow cast by the second world war. The situation it described – a displaced persons (DP) assembly centre housing eastern European refugees and concentration-camp survivors – was still ongoing. Although many of the war’s 11 million displaced people had been repatriated, hundreds of thousands were still resident in these supposedly temporary refuges. It would be 1952 before most of the camps were closed.

Cockpit follows a British officer running a DP camp in a provincial German theatre, where the fighting between Russians, Jews, Chetniks, communists and partisans is brought to a halt when a Polish professor suspects there’s been an outbreak of bubonic plague and insists on shutting the theatre’s doors. Not only did Michael Macowan’s original production feature a mix of European languages and actors arriving on stage from the back of the stalls, but it cast the audience in the role of refugees. Two decades before the environmental theatre movement emerged from the US, here was a show that blurred the lines between actor and audience. The critic of the Times called it a “hazardous but entirely successful experiment in applying the technique of the documentary film to the stage”.

Wils Wilson, who is directing a revival at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, says: “It’s the 1948 version of doing something in a site-specific way. The Norwegians are in the circle and the French are in the balcony. It was ahead of its time.” Indeed, Cockpit was the kind of genre-busting enterprise you’d expect a company such as Grid Iron or Punchdrunk to produce today.

Multinational cast … (left to right) Nebli Basani, Peter Hannah, Dylan Read, Sandra Kassman (stairs), Kaisa Hammarlund (stairs) and Adam Tompa in Cockpit. Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic

Yet Cockpit has rarely been heard of since its original production. Having run for 58 performances and lost £4,000, it disappeared. That’s why academic Dan Rebellato thought it worth bringing it to the attention of , who had just taken over the artistic directorship of the Edinburgh theatre. As a playwright, Greig had worked with Wilson and knew she’d be just the woman to stage it.

“I’ve never done anything in a theatre with red seats and gilding before,” says Wilson, more typically found staging shows in ferry boats, Berlin nightclubs and moving motor vehicles since her decade-long run in the site-specific company . A play with its own built-in theatricality was a perfect introduction to proscenium-arch theatre for her. “The idea of the democracy of a space is always in my head and, obviously, this is not a democratic space – it’s the opposite … The geography and the architecture [of the theatre] are partly what we’re looking at.”

Not that the Oxford-educated Boland has been widely recognised as a theatrical innovator. Born in London in 1913, she was a senior commander in the auxiliary territorial force, producing morale-boosting plays for the troops, before launching her career as a screenwriter, novelist and, later, playwright. She was “bored by domestic problems”, Boland wrote in 1987, a year before her death, and “succeeded best with heavy drama”.

Before Cockpit, she had worked on the British screen adaptation of and, with neat circularity, her 1954 play The Prisoner, starring Alec Guinness, would open at the Royal Lyceum before being made into a film in which Guinness reprised his role.

Giving the displaced a voice … Sophia Kolinas in Cockpit. Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic

Why Cockpit has faded from view, Wilson finds hard to say. Was critic Harold Hobson right when he lamented that “London isn’t half intelligent enough for it”? What she does know is that the play has become newly pertinent, its dramatisation of the quarrels between ethnic groups a grim foreboding of today’s surge in nationalism.

“People have lines in it like, ‘You don’t understand anything about ,’” she says over lunch. “It’s about conflict between the factions, nationalities and tribal groups. The fact Boland was interested in displaced people is interesting. She’s writing about people who have no voice. Even that bit of history is not particularly well documented because the DP camps were supposed to be temporary and nobody was recording much of what went on.”

Earlier, I watch Wilson in rehearsal, a fair but firm presence in bare feet (“I don’t like wearing anything that imposes on you”) in the midst of a multinational cast hauling around refugee blankets, suitcases and pans. What she calls a “European company for a European play,” her 12 actors come from Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, France and the UK.

True to Boland’s spirit, Wilson is putting 50 audience members on the stage, extending the design into the stalls and turning the whole theatre into a performance space. “I like the theatre being a theatre so you don’t have to pretend it isn’t,” she says. “Putting the audience on stage breaks it out of that televisual naturalism. It means you’re not painting pictures, you’re dealing with energy.”

  • Cockpit is at the , until 28 October. Box office: 0131-248 4848.