Back in 1953, in its first season, Stratford’s mandate was very easy to describe: to produce the works of William Shakespeare. They put on two plays that season: Richard III and All’s Well That Ends Well. With 38 plays (give or take a play or two) in the Shakespearean canon, you’d think that mandate would be broad enough to last a while, but Tyrone Guthrie, the first artistic director, strayed almost immediately, with a production of Oedipus Rex in the second season. Of course, Oedipus is pretty much the definition of a classic; if one is looking to go out on a limb in expanding one’s mandate, it’s about the sturdiest one you could find.
Over the years, of course, the mandate expanded further. And this is, ultimately, all to the good: it’s healthier for there to be a lot of different kinds of theater going on at Stratford – better, in particular, for Shakespeare, which is anything but "classical" in its origins and which breaks pretty much every classical convention we know of.
Stratford’s repertoire these days is still centered on Shakespeare, but extends to other classics in a variety of theatrical traditions from the ancient world through to the 20th century, as well as contemporary plays that plausibly share the stage with the classics. In constructing such a repertoire, I think the hardest calls Stratford has to make is what modern and contemporary plays truly can share a stage with Shakespeare. Obviously, I think the best of Edward Albee can do so; for that matter, I think a perfect farce like Noises Off, which Stratford staged in 2004, does not seem out of place alongside A Comedy of Errors.
In my review of Shakespeare’s Will, I criticized the choice of that play because the play itself wasn’t substantial enough to justify its inclusion in a Stratford season. But the most important criterion for theater of any kind, though, is theatricality. On that most important score, this year’s production of David Edgar’s Pentecost fully earns its place in the season.
The play was originally commissioned for the RSC, and was written while the Balkan civil war of the 1990s was at its height. Set in an unnamed Balkan republic, the premise is that a local curator (Gabriela Pecs, played by Lucy Peacock) has uncovered in an obscure country church an astonishing fresco strikingly reminiscent of the work of Giotto. She believes her find pre-dates Giotto which, if true, would be a revolutionary discovery indeed, as it would imply that single-point perspective was discovered decades earlier than art history now teaches, and, indeed, that the heartland of the Renaissance was not Italy but the Balkans.
She brings her discovery to the attention of a visiting English art professor (Oliver Davenport, played by John Koensgen), and the two of them set to work to remove the fresco and bring it to her country’s national museum. This, in turn, draws the attention of the local Orthodox and Catholic clergy, who have been feuding since the end of Communist rule over who properly have rights to the church in question; their are allied, however, in not wanting the valuable fresco removed from the premises. They, in turn, enlist the assistance of an American art historian (Leo Katz, played by Jonathan Goad), a crusader against the removal of art treasures from their anthropologically proper context. Throw in an uncultured minister of culture and a no-nonsense judge who was an imprisoned dissident under the old regime, and you have set the stage for a multi-sided argument about the nature and purpose of art and history and how they relate to one another.
The unfolding of this argument takes up most of the first act. It sounds highly intellectual, but in performance it was riveting. I was especially impressed at the author’s skill in contriving the situation; it is not easy to justify in dramatic terms putting an intellectual argument on stage (try reading five plays by Shaw in a sitting followed by five plays by Tom Stoppard if you doubt it), but Edgar pulls it off without breaking a sweat. I was vaguely aware of the kinds of arguments that Katz makes from the controversy over the display of certain Russian icons in a blockbuster exhibit at the Guggenheim a couple of years ago, but I don’t think any familiarity was necessary to engage with the argument; moreover, and more importantly, the scenes work on an emotional level even if you are not engaged with the intellectual question at all. The first act climaxes with a trial, held in the church, to determine whether the fresco may be removed or not. As the trial ended, I wondered what the author was going to do for the next act.
I soon found out. Seconds after the trial ends, our nice intellectual play is quite literally invaded: a comandeered UN jeep loaded with armed refugees bursts into the church, and takes the three principals – Ms. Pecs, Mr. Davenport and Mr. Katz – hostage. The refugees – who hail from all four corners of the globe, and maybe some points beyond – demand free passage to and working papers in the countries of their choice. The remainder of the play is a hostage drama.
Now, on the one hand, I know exactly what Edgar was thinking when he wrote this, and I admire the conceit. He’s spent an entire act getting us deeply invested in an intellectual argument, and then slaps us in the face, saying, in effect: you think this is intellectually interesting? Let me show you some people who don’t have time to find things intellectually interesting. You think history is important? Let me show you some history that is happening right under your noses that you don’t want to think about. It’s an extremely effective way to get one’s point across, and, moreover, the jeep bursting onto the stage is a powerful image, reminiscent of Mother Courage’s famous cart.
That said, once the trick is pulled, Edgar has a problem. And that is: hostage dramas are extremely simple and predictable. The situation is as narrow as can be imagined, and the number of possible complications limited, so that the author is going to be tempted to use all of them. As, indeed he does: a secret message is passed; one of the hostages tries to collaborate; the police outside try to split the hostage-takers by offering asylum to some but not others; etc. While we are waiting for the inevitable end, we learn the stories of these various refugees, which range from sad to horrifying, and we are treated to Edgar’s notion of the community of refugees as a new community at Babel, all speaking different languages, held together by the combination of adversity and the universal detritus of American popular culture (Star Trek, Elvis songs, etc).
The audience is put in a rather similar position to the hostages, forced to confront the refugee hostage-takers, and, like the hostages, we inevitably respond sympathetically to their plight. knowing how the world actually works, and how ludicrous the refugees’ plan is, we anticipate with no satisfaction their destruction at the hands of the authorities. Egdar has one last trick up his sleeve, though, before the inevitably violent finale. He contrives a revelation that "proves" that the fresco is, as Ms. Pecs argued from the first, substantially older than Giotto – and, moreover, that it was painted by an itinerant Arab Muslim, a previously unknown artist who turns out to have set in motion the artistic and, by extension, cultural revolution we call the Renaissance. Out of this revelation we get our moment of communion before catastrophe, as all and sundry realize that we are all the product of those who invaded us.
This particular series of revelations I found rather hard to take on multiple levels. (The artist was completely unknown in the Arab world as well as the West? Why would that be? And why would he have been able to discover single-point perspective? Where did that come from – a sudden inspiration? Which he shared with nobody, leaving no examples apart from this one fresco that changed the world? And where’s the evidence that Giotto ever saw his work? And, most broadly, given that our language already credits the Arabs for inventing decimal numbers (in fact, invented by the Hindus, but that’s no matter) – which affects far more of our lives than single-point perspective – why does Edgar think that this particular revelation is in any way importantly revelatory about the pre-modern relationship between the Muslim and Christian worlds?) I suppose Edgar felt he needed some kind of positive connection to be made, but this particular one was neither emotionally true nor factually plausible.
So what we’re left with at the end is a half of a brilliantly-written play that gets exploded in a dramatic fashion to make a political point with great power, only to leave us with bits of Humpty Dumpty that really don’t get put back together again.
Is this a "modern classic"? I’d have to say not, because the second half of the play is dramatically unsatisfying. But it’s a worthy effort, and has some excellent writing and some fine dramatic effects. Moreover, this production was absolutely stunning from end to end. First off, I cannot believe they fit so many actors onto the tiny stage of the Studio Theater. For much of the second act, there are easily fifteen people on the stage at any one time, sometimes more (plus, of course, a jeep). Yet the actors never feel artificially crowded. The script has dialogue in multiple languages, as well as English of varying fluency and accent, and all are handled expertly by the cast. And I cannot think of a role that was poorly played. Lucy Peacock played just the right mix of dignity and giddy enthusiasm as Gabriela Pecs; it’s a great role for her. Jonathan Goad showed us both the appealing and the self-serving sides of his American professor, as did John Koensgen as a totally different kind of academic type. Adrienne Gould, as the Palestinian leader of the refugee group, absolutely nailed the public Palestinian woman persona; she could have stepped right off the screen from an interview with Christiane Amanpour. And the smaller roles were all handled expertly: Brian Hamman as the thuggish minister of culture; Dan Chameroy and Stephen Russell as, respectively, the Catholic and Orthodox priests; Nora McLellan as the judge; and the whole huge cast of refugees – everyone was in fine form.
Modern classic or no, this is precisely the sort of play and production that Stratford should seek out to fill that slot in its repertoire.