St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch
Pentecost in the Christian calendar is when Christ's disciples were given the gift of tongues; everyone could understand what they said, a sort of heavenly automatic translation service enabling communication. Edgar's multi-layered play, set in a former Eastern bloc country after the end of Communism where refugees from many countries are looking for an escape route to the West, has Pentecostal moments but its other image is the reverse, the Tower of Babel, when heaven confounded communication with multi-lingual confusion.
The play takes place in a church where Gabriella Pecs, curator from the National Museum, believes she has discovered a hidden fresco that may predate by a century Giotto's introduction of perspective painting. St Leonard's, where Gavin McAlinden stages his Charm Offensive production, stands in for this medieval Southeastern European church, designer Vicki Fifield creating a new wall for the fresco's discovery. Not only is this a real ecclesiastical location but the cast includes many actors who come from that part of Europe and from the Middle East, like the characters themselves.
While this adds authenticity to the production, it also brings its drawbacks for the church acoustic, splendid perhaps for music, blurs the clarity of voices, especially when they have heavy accents. Inevitably some of the detail of Edgar's dense text is lost until the ears have adjusted. Though difficult to follow at first, that doesn't interfere with the passionate commitment of Pinar Ogun's performance of Gabriella as she displays her discovery to Oliver Davenport's British art historian.
The first part of the play concentrates on the arguments for the dating of the fresco and plans to restore and remove it to the National Museum. An American art scholar, Leo Katz (Ben Warwick), arrives, opposed to the removal of the patina of time and relocation. He has been called in by the Orthodox priest (Ingo Raudkivi) who claims the church in conflict with the Catholic priest (Frederick Szkoda) who also claims it. The astute Minister of Culture (Edward Akrout) may not know much about Giotto but he gives permission for the fresco to be uncovered and a magistrate (Etela Pardo) comes to hear the arguments for and against removal.
There are forceful performances from all these players but the play is not just about a painting. This is a society in which members of families who left forty years ago are turning up to claim a house or a factory, where sense of nation and identity are challenged. When a group of armed refugees burst in and make the art experts their hostages, it opens up a whole nest of contemporary problems.
With gunmen in the gallery or at your elbow and a naked priest advancing up the aisle bringing an answer from the authorities, the director makes use of the whole church, giving the production an urgent immediacy and getting committed performances from his large cast.
This is a play that sadly seems just as relevant today as it did when premiered by the RSC in 1994. This is a timely revival. With seating in pews on a flat floor, a big head in front of you may be a problem. Don't hesitate to take one of the pews at the sides of the stage which will solve that problem if you're not a six footer yourself.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton