The Cause

Jeremy James
ACS Random in association with Jermyn Street Theatre
Jermyn Street Theatre

Jesse DeCoste as Young Sándor, Emma Mulkern as Medve and Robert Wilde as Tibor Credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Mark Joseph as Voja Tankosic, Tony Warren as Sándor Teleki, Angela Dixon as therapist Margit and Jesse DeCoste as Young Sándor Credit: David Monteith-Hodge

This is a play about the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand: the spark that set off the First World War when, on 28 June 1914, a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, fired a shot that killed both the Archduke and his wife.

More precisely it’s about the plot to carry out the assassination and not just that involving Princip but another planned by a group of young Austrian artists who called their clandestine conspiracy the Miracle Stags.

Their story is told through the memory of aging artist Sándor Teleki (Tony Wredden) who, in this fictionalised version, is in Oxford, stricken with a paralysis that has no obvious cause, being treated by a psychotherapist and hypnotised to unlock suppressed traumas.

Zahra Mansouri’s design splits the stage into three different areas. On one side is the realistic room of psychotherapist Margit (Angela Dixon); on the other is the office of Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, aka Apis, leader of the Black Hand, a secret society formed by officers of the Serbian Army. Between them, presented surreally, is the world of the Miracle Stags, an abstracted artist’s studio that can become a cafe, a railway carriage or whatever is necessary by means of a painting.

From 1960s Oxford, Teleki remembers and watches as the past is enacted, the action switching between time zones and places and jumping from one plot to the other.

At first it feels like a history lesson, one that most people may know already, then it gains interest as it becomes clear that these young artists aren’t the Black Hand assassins while at the same time the Bosnian plotting is unfolding as a story of inept incompetence.

The titular “Cause”, the one shared by all of them, is nationalistic independence from the control of Austria but there is almost nothing to suggest why they have such strong feelings or how an assassination will serve their aims. There is nothing to provide understanding of what drives them, nothing to create empathy with their cause.

The Black Hand side of the story, conducted often in telephone conversations between Alexander Nash’s a sardonically apoplectic Colonel Apis and the subservient underling Vojislav Tankosić (Mark Joseph) is pure farce but, though it gets a few laughs, it isn’t really played as comedy. Perhaps it should be: realism in Oxford, farce among the Serbians and between them a surreal study in the conflict between love and honour, personal happiness and perceived duty; three styles as well as three stories.

We learn very little about the young artists beyond the conflict between personalities. Perhaps we are intended only to see them as symbols characterised by their paint bedaubed hands and clothing splashed with colour like canvases; such stylisation is in conflict with naturalistic performances.

Emma Mulkern seems most real as the cross-dressing but still feminine Medve, Robert Wilde is an obnoxiously arrogant Tibor, Alexander Stutt a more conciliatory Ede and Jesse DeCoste, like Wilde making his professional debut, as Young Sándor who is faced with a choice that will haunt him.

Andrew Shepherd’s direction drives the pace of the piece, scenes almost overlapping, and producing performances strong enough to hold the attention as people prepare for the next one but it is not until well into the second act when the plot increases in drama that it makes one care and, though I sense some intention to suggest a contemporary relevance, this play doesn’t explore the questions about nationalism and terrorism its subject raises to make it topical.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton