Restitution

Emily Juniper
Ugly Sister Productions
King's Head Theatre

Chloe Gilgallon as Berta and Alastair Kirton as Robert in Restitution

Restitution is about the ownership of things taken in war or confiscated by the authorities. Dramatist Emily Juniper says it was inspired by a 2007 BBC documentary on the subject: Baddiel and the Missing Nazi Billions by writer and comedian David Baddiel and it concerns itself with a particular (fictional) instance of a painting taken from a Jewish family in Germany by the Nazis.

In a small art gallery in a provincial town in Germany Robert (Alastair Kirton) is transfixed before a painting. It is a painting of Hero that seventy years ago, before the Holocaust, hung in his mother's home and which she spent most of her life trying to track down. He has continued that quest and now he has found it.

A museum curator, Berta (Chloe Gilgallon) ready to lock up, asks him to move his car which is blocking her boss's vehicle from leaving. He refuses until she will tell him the name of the present owner, for he wants Hero back.

Thus begins an awkward confrontation, for the owner is Berta's mother, complicated by the fact that these two people clearly like each other. It is not a discussion of the legal pros and cons but gains its dramatic interest from the conflict between Robert, for whom this is the only surviving link with is lost family, Berta manoeuvring her stance as she realizes his determination to repossess it.

The shadow of the Holocaust hangs heavy here; inevitably it influences any reaction. Berta's mother, sole survivor, remembered furniture, silverware and this picture being taken, confiscated, from her home and later, aged eleven, while some disturbance distracted their keepers, being pushed off the train that carried her parents off, never to be seen again. For Robert this is a missing part of his life, for Berta it is not a matter of who owns a valuable object but that art should be seen and shared by the many, though there is an acknowledged element of an important picture giving the gallery, even the town, more status. These are the emotional and pragmatic arguments that come into play concerning the Elgin Marbles, Benin Bronzes and other artifacts removed from their cultural home.

Played on the set for Someone to Blame, the current main play on the theatre's programme, designer Anne Bliss Scully suggests the gallery with a couple of small empty frames with accompanying labels on an empty wall. We never see the picture of Hero; it is on the fourth wall above visible only to the characters, though Berta gives us a retelling of the classical story of Hero and Leander that it depicts.

The simplicity of Julia McHale's production concentrates entirely on the actors. Alastair Kirton looks too young for the son of a Holocaust survivor but youthfulness emphasises the way in which the need for restitution persists through generations and these two performers capture the changing chemistry of their increasing confrontation.

Russian pogroms, the upheaval of Armenians, Greeks and Turks in the 1920s, the Cyprus conflict, the return to capitalism of former communist countries and wartime trophy taking have all seen property confiscated or unwillingly abandoned. Whether the result of conflict, political change or purchase from those with a questionable right to sell, conflict of ownership persists, with or without a statute of limitations. These are issues of which this 75-minute play reminds us but the drama here is in the emotional confrontation not the legal details, whether art belongs to the world or the individual rather than which individual.

Playing on Sundays and Mondays only

Reviewer: Howard Loxton