Hegel’s famous quote that the “only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history” seems to ring truer every day at the moment. Despite all the previous hatred, division, violence and white supremacy (see, in particular, the entire history of the human race) we nevertheless seem to have arrived in a place where all the things we thought we’d left well behind in the twentieth century are back in vogue (even, inexplicably, the Spice Girls). On the plus side, this also provides excellent grounds for revisiting David Greig’s superb 1994 play, Europe, which feels so relevant it could have been written yesterday. Silver linings, and all that.
The play takes place, for the most part, in a crumbling train station on the border of an unnamed town in eastern Europe. The sense of abandonment felt by the community oozes out of every detail of Chloe Lamford’s set, complete with digital destination board that optimistically reads “Europe” and a handmade sign, possibly on loan from Southern Rail, that says simply “No Trains”. Jobs are being lost, trains are passing by on the way to more glamorous destinations with the only people stopping over, a father and daughter fleeing the Balkan conflict, whose unwelcome presence, camped on the platform, is met with rising exasperation from the station master, Fret (Ron Cook).
We watch, in amusement, Fret’s attempts to move the refugees along to the next waiting point on their interminable journey – “there will be no trains for the foreseeable future, sorry for the inconvenience” – tinged with all the mournful pedantry of a captain preparing to go down with his sinking ship. At least, he does until he discovers in the fine print of the regulations to which he so desperately clings that the ship has already sunk without him noticing and that the station is no longer in operation. Only now does he begin to realise that his diligent, unquestioning adherence to the established rules has rendered him redundant in every sense of the word.
In a novel twist that surely has Marx’s spectre revolving in its grave, farce is repeated as tragedy in the production’s second half. The racism festering amongst the disaffected community – wryly lampooned for its preposterous assertions that foreigners arrive in flying boats to steal people’s jobs – erupts into brutish menace and violence. Against this backdrop of growing danger each character is presented with difficult choices as they try to preserve their dreams, security, or just their dignity.
Especially resonant are Natalia Tena as Katia, the cynical, world-weary refugee and Faye Marsay as Adele, the small-town girl who dreams of one day boarding the trains she watches pass by each morning, wreathed in their smog of possibility. Whilst playfully declining the invitation for caricature initially offered by these parts, the duo present the show’s most richly layered performances as their growing bond continually forces us to reconsider our understanding of each character.
This is equally applicable to the show as a whole: one woman’s opportunity to travel is another man’s chance for exploitation which, in turn, is repaid by a further man’s jealous, bloodthirsty rage. This is a stunning, disquieting production that revels in exposing the swirling, unstable foundations on which our multiple and shifting understandings of this continent are based until, aided by spectacular pyrotechnics, the auditorium itself seems to disintegrate along with the illusion that we are somehow separate from what we are observing. Whether we like it or not, we are all on board this runaway train. It’s long since time we started thinking about where it’s headed.
Europe is playing the Donmar Warehouse until 10 August. For more information and tickets, visit the Donmar Warehouse website.