A new era is dawning at the Donmar, with Michael Longhurst stepping into Josie Rourke’s sizeable shoes as artistic director. Longhurst, whose recent productions include Amadeus, The Son and Caroline, Or Change, has opened his account at Covent Garden with a rare revival of prolific Scottish playwright David Greig’s Europe.
Written in 1994, Greig’s play is set in the railway station of a non-specific European town – a railway station that no trains ever stop at, and that two refugees, Sava and Katia, make their home, alongside its officious stationmaster, his dreamer assistant, and the town’s increasingly irate population.
Longhurst’s revival features Armenian actor Kevork Malikyan as Sava, Harry Potter star Natalia Tena as Katia, stage and screen stalwart Ron Cook as stationmaster Fret, and Game of Thrones’ Faye Marsay as his assistant Adele.
But does these proven performers provide the goods? What do the critics think of Longhurst’s debut as the Donmar’s director? Just how divided is opinion over Europe?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
When Greig penned Europe in 1994, he was writing in the wake of the collapse of communism, during the Bosnian War. Does his play still pack a punch in the current climate?
It definitely does. The play seems “eerily prophetic” according to Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard, ★★★★), while for Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★) it’s “richly resonant” and for Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★), it’s “distressingly pertinent” and “devastatingly timely”.
“Greig’s sharp, clear-sighted writing unfolds over a number of short-ish scenes, in which he traces how industrial and economic decline leads to introversion, suspicion of strangers and, ultimately, devastating violence,” says Mountford, while Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut, ★★★★) observes that the play “had domestic resonances then and sure as hell has them now”.
Most critics admire the deftness and dexterity of Greig’s writing. It has “dazzling precision” and “is often very funny” according Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★), while Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★) writes that “the dialogue teems with wit and lyricism, such that we glimpse the immensity and complexity of Europe as through the window of a passing train”.
“Greig’s text is a modern classic, being impressively precise and perceptive, with its subtle shifts of feeling and its moments of quirky eccentric comedy,” says Aleks Sierz (Arts Desk, ★★★★★). “The effect is a marvellous mixture of political writing and profound emotional shading.”
Only Clive Davis (The Times, ★★) can’t see what all the fuss is about. For him, Greig’s play is hampered by “one-dimensional characters and listless storytelling”.
Michael Longhurst has a CV stuffed with strong shows; as well as Amadeus, The Son and Caroline, Or Change, he’s taken charge of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria at the Hampstead Theatre, Nick Payne’s Constellations at the Royal Court, and Adam Brace’s They Drink It in the Congo at the Almeida. Does he impress again with his inaugural effort as director of the Donmar?
He definitely does. His production is “fluid” and “intelligent” according to Fiona Mountford, “majestic” according to Sierz, and a “terrific, powerful night” according to Crompton. Longhurst “tugs out” the play’s “poetry and sweet sadness”, Crompton continues, while Tripney adds that his production is “as tender as it is potent” and Sierz says that it’s “symbolic and versatile”, “brutal and tender”,
There’s a lot of love for his creative collaborators, too – designer Chloe Lamford, composer Simon Slater and sound designer Ian Dickinson. The set is “brilliantly deceptive” and the sound design “phenomenal” says Lukowski, while Crompton comments that they are both “entirely realistic” and “powerfully metaphoric”.
Davis determines that although “Longhurst’s direction works hard to distract you from the void at the centre of the script”, the production “still feels like a long journey to nowhere in particular”, but most critics concur with Billington.
“Longhurst’s production and Chloe Lamford’s design perfectly match the play’s ability to mix the minute and the metaphorical,” he writes. “Every detail seems correct, down to the railway timetables fixed with drawing pins, yet the station eventually comes to stand for a continent.”
There’s no stand-out star in Longhurst’s cast – it’s just an eight-strong ensemble of proven performers. Alongside Malikyan, Tena, Cook and Marsay are Theo Barklem-Biggs, Billy Howle, Stephen Wight and Shane Zaza.
All are excellent, according to the critics. The performances are “first-rate” for Billington, “well-judged” for Cavendish and “terrific” for Crompton.
Malikyan “lends a calm tenderness” to Sava, continues Crompton, while Sierz describes him as “wise and good-humoured” and Cavendish labels him a “bearded, open-hearted refugee”, also calling Cook “memorably eccentric”.
“Two women shine particularly brightly,” contends Mountford. “Tena gives the conflict-hardened Katia nervy intensity, while Faye Marsay lends station worker Adele pathos as she dreams, perhaps hopelessly, of Europe’s far-away glamour spots.”
“There are some really strong performances here,” agrees Tripney, “but it’s the play that is the star, a quarter of a century old and still unsettlingly fresh.”
“Greig’s genius has always been his ability to merge the macro with the micro,” she concludes. “With deftness and intent, Longhurst’s production demonstrates how prophetic a text this is – a diagnosis from the past, a warning.”
Yes, it’s a strong show, and a solid start for Longhurst’s new Donmar regime. There are many four-star reviews, only one negative two-star rating from Clive Davis in the Times and a notable five-star write-up from the Arts Desk’s Aleks Sierz.
Longhurst’s direction is deft, aided ably by Chloe Lamford’s design and Ian Dickinson’s sound, the performances are polished across the board and, two and a half decades on from its debut, Greig’s play is still a powerful and pertinent portrait of a divided Europe.