One of the great struggles in staging generational trauma is fairly simple: how can a narrative give its audience enough to relate to that there’s a semblance of common ground, without in the process negating the very material that it’s seeking to bring to light? I’m not convinced that it would be possible to offer a single answer to this dilemma: it’s too dependent on the specific history that the work engages with, not to mention the presumed background(s) of its audience. However, the method employed by Old Stock: A Refugee Story is without a doubt absolutely brutally effective.
By starting with the personal, the past feels all the more immediate. It’s not a separate entity for us to contend with in addition to the story at the heart of the play, but instead an active participant in that story. The marks left by trauma and grief are a demonstrable force in the lives of its survivors, who navigate a new world with its weight behind them.
It may not sound like it from everything I just said, but this is far from an hour and a half of raw misery mainlined into the soul. On the contrary, it’s more of a masterclass on exactly how many different emotions, and degrees thereof, it’s possible to fit into this length of time. The answer, it turns out, is all of them. Perhaps at times the swings from pain to joy are a little too much, making it hard to keep up with feeling what we’re “supposed” to be feeling, but also maybe that’s the point. The changes to the lives of the characters are so absolute and so far from happening in isolation: personal events are overshadowed by personal and wider history, by genocide, by the difficulties of immigration. Every moment of joy feels like a veneer stretched over a pit of sorrow and loss — but maybe that’s why they shine so brightly.
There’s a delightful incongruity between the old, unchanging interior of Wilton’s music hall and the frenetic energy of this show literally unfolding from a shipping container placed on the stage. Inside and outside of the immediate narrative, the forces of tradition and change clash together, creating something altogether new.
To pull together your own family history in a collision of amazing music and painstaking detail is surely beyond the reaches of most people, but Hannah Moscovitch gives it such compassion and self awareness that the piece as a whole functions just as much as a social history as a personal one. Pulled together by Ben Caplan’s leadership on stage, this entire piece is living, glowing history.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is playing Wilton’s Music Hall until 28 September. For more information and tickets, see the Wilton’s Music Hall website.