November 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and one could reasonably argue that now is a good time to stage this ambitious production. Burning Coal, an American theatre company, is reviving three David Edgar plays in rep, as the Iron Curtain Trilogy. Pentecost is the central play, and the best-known, winner of the Evening Standard Award for Best New Play in 1995.
In an unnamed Eastern European country, the National Museum’s curator, Gabriella Pecs (Hope Hynes Love), discovers a fresco that might predate the great early fourteenth century artist Giotto. Alongside English art historian Oliver Davenport (Marc Carver), she is thrilled by the implication that the Italian Renaissance in fact began in an rural Eastern European church. American professor Leo Katz (Brian Linden) arrives to argue with them, but the significance of the rift between East and West only becomes truly clear when all three are taken hostage in the church by a group of asylum seekers.
Despite the ostensibly ripe time for revival, aspects of the play feel a little old-fashioned. It is 2 hours 30 mins long, with a cast of 20, and it’s highly (perhaps a little smugly) intellectual, full of in-jokes about art historians and Stoppardian wordplay. And while tensions from the break-up of the USSR remain ongoing – witness Eastern Ukraine and South Ossetia – some of the play’s political resonance has naturally faded. On the other hand, Pentecost, as a piece of writing, handles political, cultural and historical complexities with assurance and wit, and Burning Coal’s production is performed with an attractive, compelling energy.
Linden is abrasive, persuasive and funny. Lean and long-fingered, he holds the audience in his grip through complicated arguments, appearing blasé but understanding the importance of precision. The passionate ideological desire behind Gabriella’s argument with Katz is clearly there in Hynes Love’s performance, but her heavy Eastern European accent sometimes obscured her meaning. From what I could catch, dialect coach Kirby Wahl assisted most of the cast with convincing accents, but there was a tendency to move and speak too fast, with multiple things happening onstage at once, so that the sense of urgency was occasionally dissipated where it should have increased. One of the most important sacrifices to this pace was the relationship between Gabriella and Oliver, which had no space to develop any convincing chemistry.
Most of the cast were strong, with Jeanine Frost as Yasmin, the refugees’ leader, Jeff Aguiar as the asylum seeker Grigori, and Tim X. Davis as the Minister for Culture giving particularly interesting performances. The script is so packed with details that it’s difficult to see how a production could pay attention to them all, but it sometimes felt as if they were working against the thrust of Jerome Davis’s direction to find moments of quiet in which to tell a joke or make a point. When Yasmin distracts a crying baby by jangling her house keys above him and then ruefully acknowledges the ridiculousness of holding on to house keys, it’s an intensely moving still point in the turning world of the play.
Pentecost is playing The Cockpit until 30 November. For more information and tickets, see the Cockpit Theatre website. Photo by Jason Dail.