Review: Pentecost

An assembly of asylum seekers from many different parts of the world has arrived at the border of ‘Our Country’, a small Eastern European nation standing at the gateway of Western Europe. They have taken three academics and a glamour model hostage in a small church and issued a list of demands: Europe must let all asylum seekers go where they please and give them permits to stay. But it transpires that the more valuable hostage in the church is a fresco, painted on the wall, which might—in an astonishing art-historical coup de théâtre—have predated, and therefore inspired, Giotto’s ‘Lamentation of Christ’, considered (in the play, if not so straightforwardly in real life) to be the point of origin for the whole of western art in the Renaissance and after.

The first part of the play, dealing with the question of dating and restoring the fresco, feels like a particularly dry academic romp (you’ll learn a lot about stucco), before the sudden arrival of the asylum seekers, just before the interval, flips things on their head: the tension is ramped up, we are now in a hostage situation. (The play is not quite willing to stop being clever at this point, however, and it is in the second half that one character—inevitably, a New Yorker from Cornell University called Katz—describes the West’s vision of itself as “world superego”.)

The play’s intelligence would be more forgivable if it didn’t depend on it so much. If the first act can be summed up as “You are wrong about the epistemology of art restoration, and also are an arsehole,” the second is more like, “I know you have a gun aimed at my face, but I have a long and symbolically-loaded line to deliver.”

Some exceptional performances—Calam Lynch makes Katz, written in rather broad strokes, feel like a real person; Maddy Walker is ferociously good in the lead—benefit from doing exactly what the direction refuses to do: resisting some of the absurdities and contrivances of the play. This production does not look like the product of fruitful tension between a written script and a director’s personal vision. It looks like someone tried to put David Edgar’s script onto a stage without letting any of their own ideas get in the way.

The set is rendered, with stunning deftness and beauty, by Megan Thomas. It is really exquisite. But it was let down by the way in which it was used: actors were often crowded into a tiny area of it—most ludicrously, a passionate three-way argument was at one point confined to a small scaffold upstage. Even when it was full, things often felt static. Most of the asylum seekers, who were undoubtedly more interesting than the western characters, seemed to spend a lot of time hovering about upstage, not saying or doing anything to distract from the main characters.

On Pentecost, Christ’s disciples discovered that they could communicate his message to people of all lands, who spoke all sorts of different tongues. And Edgar’s Pentecost, too, contains a rich profusion of languages. German, Italian and Russian, Czech and Serbo-Croat, Armenian and Azeri, and several varieties of accented English are all to be heard, and, like the characters, we must often struggle to understand someone communicating by a combination of various broken bits of languages and expansive gesturing. The audience, like the play’s characters, muddles through. The challenging multilingualism works: its success on the Playhouse stage is one of the real pleasures of the production.

Everybody has a story to tell in Pentecost. It is a play in which nationality is never a monolith, but a great historical European–Middle Eastern–Central Asian jumble, in which someone’s answer to the question ‘Where are you from?’ often tells the story of a whole region, or continent, in miniature. Each of the asylum seekers, shuffling through the abandoned church, carries on their shoulders the weight of a life brim-full of living: a story, long and rich, of survival, success, disappointment, love, happiness, crisis. At its best, Pentecost brings to bear a simple truth that often escapes all of us. There is another world, it says, inside your neighbour’s head; there is another universe with them, not you, at its centre. All the complex apparatus of the play—the erratic pacing, constant didactic digressions, unbelievable characters and plot—does not, thankfully, quite manage to muffle this insight.

 

Image// Daniel Cunniffe