Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, De Balie and Manchester International Festival
Lyric Theatre, The Lowry
We are, without a shadow of a doubt, leaving the European Union on 31 October 2019—well, that’s how it is according to one of our prospective Prime Ministers. According to the other, we are, absolutely and for sure, going to quit the EU before 2020 shows its face.
Michael Morpurgo, delivering what is effectively the keynote speech for Re:Creating Europe, would appear not to be on message with either Prime-Minister-in-Waiting. Morpurgo is a devout, though not uncritical European. Europe, he argues, has promoted and perpetuated a system favouring those who wish to ’feather their own nests’ rather than sharing the union’s considerable wealth equitably among its 500 million citizens. In the referendum, Europe paid the full price for decades of increasing inequality whereas, Morpurgo believes, it only deserves part of the blame.
Morpurgo has not given up on the idea of a united Europe (nor, perhaps, on the possibility of the UK’s continuing membership). His Remain and Reform theme reminds us of the key factor behind the initial drive to unite the continent economically and politically, namely the repeated belligerence of several of its member states (the UK included): “We have all done war to death.”
Jan Versweyveld’s sparce set has something of the airport lounge (VIP version) about it, with the majority of contributors seated informally on armchairs and sofas, upstage left.
Tonight’s readings (in an event lightly directed by Ivo van Hove) come from a selection of thoughts and statements on Europe (and nationhood) by past and present (mostly) European literary figures and politicans. Often, a passage begins as a projected film or newsreel clip before passing onstage to a member of the cast. Thus, Christopher Eccleston gets to pick up the baton of Shakespeare’s St Crispin’s Day speech (Henry V) from Laurence Olivier. More comically, Ann Widdecombe’s maiden speech to the European parliament begins with the woman herself (recorded footage) before passing to Adjoa Andoh (who does a more than passable vocal caricature).
It’s not immediately clear what purpose these “relays” serve, other than to give the actors more to do, though it might be argued that it symbolises the ongoing, living aspect of the thoughts and issues being presented.
Andoh also gets to “play” David Lammy in a cleverly intercut “debate” with Margaret Thatcher (Juliet Stevenson). Meanwhile, Manchester poet, Lemn Sissay, may well dine out for years on tales of playing Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Winston Churchill and Richard III, all in the same evening.
The readings are delivered in four European languages: English, German, French and Dutch (this last thanks to the charismatic members of the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, where van Hove is director). It should not surprise us to learn that Shakespeare sounds great in Dutch.
There is an attempt to present all sides of the case (even to the extent of incorporating Ayn Rand’s sub-Nietzschean take on individualism) though, of all perspectives, the Lexit view on the European project strikes me as the least well-articulated here.
In any such pillow-book compilation of the thoughts of great writers and weighty politicians, there are bound to be moments to savour. Here we have Victor Hugo’s 1849 pre-visioning of a united Europe: “a day will come when the weapons will fall from your hands”. Against that, there is Farage smugly claiming that, where the UK is seeking to lead, other nations will follow, grimly foretelling the demise of the enitre union.
Musings on war and peace, poverty and prosperity, democracy and dictatorship, freedom and oppression, migration and refuge—all matters concerning the past, present and future of Europe—are represented here. Which of these, from Schiller to Bono, from Goethe to Widdecombe, resonates most effectively no doubt hangs upon personal politics, individual Weltanschauung.
Algerian Kamel Daoud, reflecting on refugees and migrants, strikes most deeply with me: "What to do with the Other? Shoot him at the border? Sunbathe while he drowns?"
We close with the words of Obama on the wisdom of a united Europe (spoken in chorus by the cast), followed by the music and words of that troubled anthem, “Ode to Joy”. A standing ovation is given—perhaps more an expression of solidarity and hope than an aesthetic judgment.
Reviewer: Martin Thomasson