The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism in Europe is being marked at the Cockpit Theatre with a mammoth staging of David Edgar’s three plays comprising The Iron Curtain Trilogy, which run until the end of the month.
We went along to see The Shape of the Table, which is the first part of the trilogy, and found it a strong, intricately political piece played with conviction by a large cast.
The play is set in an unnamed Eastern European country in 1989, where an ineffective Communist Party leadership is being ousted, and various angry political factions are demanding a voice in the new democratic government, whilst civil unrest grows amongst the ever-threatening unseen populace.
It takes a few minutes to adjust to the universal American accents – though this is irrational: Burning Coal is an American theatre company, and it would make no greater sense to have Eastern European characters speaking with an English accent. Consistency is the key. This is also true of the acting style. Whilst, inevitably in a large company, some performances are better than others, we found at first the slightly heightened playing style ill-advised; though with the same approach adopted by the whole cast, it soon becomes hypnotic.
Michael Kaplan is excellent as Marc Carver, the Prime Minister. There are so many ways that the part could be played, but Kaplan’s choices are inspired, and he evokes a surprising amount of sympathy. Tim X Davis and Randolph Curtis Rand also caught our attention with truthful, powerful and imaginatively nuanced performances, neatly picking their way through the shifts of power as the play progresses.
We didn’t like everything about the play. Edgar’s female characters are underwritten, presented seemingly as a sop. Whilst it’s true that in 1989 much of the political power would have been in the hands of men, we felt the lack of a strong female voice in the play ultimately works against it. We also found the representatives of various factions, save for Pavel Prus (a strong showing by Brian Linden), to be largely stereotypes, with one note of righteous indignation. This is not a universal play. If you enjoy political dramas where power swings like a pendulum, you will find The Shape of the Table spellbinding. If politics generally leaves you cold: so will these plays.
Despite a few misgivings about the play; the subject matter, especially on the question of what makes for a fair and just society, is a pressing one. Those with a developed social conscience will find much to mull, whilst the Burning Coal Theatre Company impresses by bringing the best out of this play, and, we can only imagine, out of the whole trilogy.