Quarrel in a Far Away Country
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and touring
The cultural and racial difference between societies is an increasingly common theme in modern writing. The human interest in finding that which is the same, whilst looking at that which is different, has become an ever more relevant concern in today's age of global networking and frequent travel. Nikki Schreiber's play attempts to tackle this issue, whilst simultaneously bringing to the fore the concerns of racial stereotyping, suppression of history and understanding of the past. The title comes from one of Neville Chamberlain's most famous quotations, relating to Hitler's proposed invasion of the Sudentenland in Czechoslovakia before the Second Worl War.
The play is set in a small town in the Czechoslovakia, towards the end of the last century. It concerns Renata; a naive young American woman, looking for her family roots after the death of her émigré father. Her arrival creates havoc as it spurs into action the ambitions and plotting of Aunt Lenka and calls into question the beliefs and loyalties of her cousin Tomas (Rob Flett).
The lynchpin of the story is without doubt Aunt Lenka, whose frequent monologues to her dead brother vary from the wistful to the downright psychotic. It is her personal struggle to recapture the near-mythical idyllic dream of her youth that drives the narrative forward. She is played with a terrifying vigour by Lawrie Johnston, who leaves us in no doubt as to the lunacy bubbling below the surface of the ageing mother, whose world has moved on and left her behind.
The set-up of the stage was sparse, constituting only two locations made up from only a few props. Trent Kim's lighting is simple yet effective, a sentiment which can be echoed for Stephen Reid's sound design, most noticeably the deep bass roll undercutting Lenka's asides; growing ever-stronger along with her malice and hysteria.
Curiously, all of the actors playing the Czechs make no attempt at accents, whilst Emily Rees speaks with a thick North American twang. This disparity has the unfortunate effect of continually reminding the audience that these are actors and prevents further immersion in the events.
However the rest of the cast acquit themselves admirably under Miriam Houghton's direction, each inhabiting their role well and managing to evoke the emotions underpinning the actions of the characters. However this is ultimately where the play falls short, as there is simply too many secondary ideas vying for time. The entire subplot of Tomas and his despised Gypsy lover Marie (Gilly Bain) seems largely superfluous to the story considering the amount of time given over to it. In addition, many of the key moments are played offstage leaving the play lacking in catharsis. Ultimately it is Lenka's tragedy: however the choice of events we bear witness to leaves this unclear until the very end.
This combined with the amount of history and politics mentioned, leaves an audience unfamiliar with the period in question bogged down under the weight of continual exposition. This added to the many character flaws of all four main protagonists, leave the audience with little reason to care about any of them. As a result whole the play comes over seeming superficial, which is unfortunate considering the level of commitment shown all round.
Reviewer: Graeme Strachan