Leeds Playhouse, Pop Up Theatre
Where Mother Courage shows us the effects of war in forcing a family into constant movement, Europe is a post-Soviet tale in which we see individuals trapped in place by a world which advertises supposed freedom to them.
Originally written in 1994 as an allusive, indirect response to the Balkan conflict, David Greig’s early work is weighty and poetic, though as with many of his plays its heft is leavened with humour and grounded in a strong sense of character and atmosphere.
As a choice for the current political moment—and for the Leeds Playhouse’s temporary space—this is fascinating; coming after outward-looking, celebratory works with which James Brining and co closed the Quarry, this feels grittier, more probing and urgent: more drizzle on the Danube than Sunshine on Leith.
The wide, towering converted workshop which houses the show is ideally suited to the stretch of railway line alongside which the action plays out. The plot and cast gradually emerge as if from a mist; Fret (Joseph Alessi) is a station master struggling to figure out his timetable, Adele (Tessa Parr) his would-be protegée. But, dreaming of travel and escape, she’s keener on the visceral thrill she gets as the trains thunder past than on figuring out how to make them stop again in their small town.
Disrupting the peace of this unnamed backwater are Katia (Jo Mousley) and Sava (Robert Pickavance), a mysterious pair of travellers who huddle on the disused platform for warmth; they are there passing through, simply wanting to wait. Both characters speak with the unnerving over-enunciated perfection of the foreigner, and they make a compelling double act. Whereas Pickavance is avuncular, almost professorial, Mousley is wary, mistrustful, but sparkling with caged energy—you can see why Fret and Adele are drawn to the pair as they weave their way into the stalled life of the station.
The cast as a whole—the same that performed in Road and that constitutes the ensemble for this Pop-Up season—is splendid. Alessi’s particular, pernickety station master disintegrates intriguingly as does his function and sense of purpose. The laddish trio of Billy (Lladel Bryant), Horse (Alex Nowak) and Berlin (Dan Parr) give off the required fractious camaraderie, and Berlin’s disenchantment with his life and prospects leads to a near-demonic—but ultimately comprehensible—transformation. Returning traveller Morocco (Darren Kuppan) is suitably smarmy as he boasts of the new life he’s made for himself importing and exporting goods of dubious origin.
The play explores the nature of borders, especially in a world of expanding political unions and the consequent supposed freedom of movement. James Brining’s direction probes this with some beautiful interpretations of these opaque, poetic characters.
Amanda Stoodley’s design is evocative, generating a powerful sense of place without being literal-minded; the split levels of the station building are well-realised, and the crunchy gravel of the railway line a reminder of the lack of escape from here. The dirt and greys of the backdrop are thrillingly well lit by David Bennion-Pedley, and the sound design (David Shrubsole) is subtle and atmospheric. Design elements combine eerily well, transforming the space in the climactic moments of the drama.
The staging is at times daringly, deliberately static, but this is to the good of the production, contrasting some characters’ energetic exploitation of their freedom of movement with the frustrations of those stuck in place.
When everyone is, in theory, free to move where they want, and the entrepreneurial from within the community conjure money by manipulating goods across the magical lines of what once were firmer borders, what happens to those without the cash, energy, imagination or inclination to picture a life beyond the village? And when that money does drain away from the stagnating, station-less branch lines, why should the inhabitants uproot their lifestyles to shift to bigger cities?
Greig’s play, in this punchy, superbly performed production, has lost none of its clarity of vision and dismay at the way that some can escape, while others, left behind, can do nothing but lash out at the world. The production provokes an off-putting set of questions, more timely than ever, about what being European means—to Berlin, to the Balkans, and to us.