Gate Theatre, London – until 26 October 2019
Aymeric has been working at the Balbek Theatre, in a small town miles away from the nation’s capital, its culture and politics, for five years. He longs for fame, excitement and to leave the relentless monotony of provincial life behind him and will do anything to achieve these goals. Along with his discontent, right-wing sentiment grows across the country. In the capital, the ‘liberal elite’ make great art, drink champagne and argue over how, as state-funded artists, they should respond to the rising fascism – or if they can at all.
Chris Campbell’s translation, of Samuel Gallet’s adaptation of the banned novel by Klaus Mann, is disturbingly prescient and vibrantly staged. It begins in the Balbek Theatre, a building with gold walls, red carpeting and wooden panelling that captures a regional theatre’s perception of urban opulence which, in the city, would be cheap and tacky.
Personifying this well-meant but misguided intention is Eva (Tamzin Griffin), the artistic director who is unwavering in her devotion to Chekhov even though some of her actors want to make new and relevant work. As the far right threatens her theatre and the acting company, she holds her apolitical line with dogged determination. Though she dutifully informs the police of the pig heads that periodically appeal at the building’s door, she just wants Aymeric (Leo Bill) and Michael (Rhys Rusbatch), a working class actor who spaffs fascist ideology with increasing venom, to just get along. Bill plays Aymeric as a tortured luvvie, who is coddled by his new girlfriend Barbara (Rebecca Humphries), the daughter of the New Theatre’s artistic director Anna Bauer (also played by Griffin).
Director Kirsty Housley effectively embraces the non-naturalistic elements of the script through lighting and staging, which work together to move further from reality as the story progresses and Aymeric finds and loses his way. Housley keeps the actors on show at almost all times, waiting and watching in other parts of the stage or on the sides, as disaffected and disengaged citizens do when their country is falling apart. Bold colours in the design further heighten conflict, theatricality, and unapologetic politics. Along with the unapologetic and confrontational ensemble, the production’s energy demands attention.
The script is thematically rich and dramaturgically surprising, if at times disorientating and destabilising due to big leaps in style or time. It’s a fitting feeling for our times, reinforced by the sense that the history in the play is repeating itself now. Combined with the big questions it raises on compromising one’s beliefs, and the role of the liberal and progressive, publicly funded arts in an increasingly fascist nation, the play confronts classism, racism and lack of political action in the UK today, both in the arts and in the privileged but apathetic public.