Michael Longhurst begins his inaugural season as artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse with a devastatingly timely revival of David Greig’s 1994 play.
Though it was written 25 years ago, at a time when Yugoslavia was splintering into pieces, the play feels distressingly pertinent. It shows all too clearly, then as now, how little it takes for hate to flourish.
Greig’s play is set in the railway station of an unnamed European border town where the trains no longer stop. The factories have closed. The town is slowly dying. Sava (Kevork Malikyan) and Katia (Natalia Tena) are refugees, fleeing from an unspecified war – Bosnia perhaps, or Syria, any place from which people run. They end up sleeping in the station though they have no intention of staying there. This is not a place where people stay if they can help it.
Ron Cook, relishing his role, plays an officious stationmaster, a stickler for order, who initially wants rid of this human flotsam washed up in his place of work, but who gradually softens and starts to see them as people. He becomes friends with Sava. At the same time Adele (Faye Marsay), the stationmaster’s assistant, who yearns with all her heart to see other cities and to escape from this place, finds herself drawn to Katia.
Shane Zaza, playing charismatic black-marketeer Morocco, gets one of the play’s best speeches, explaining – with accompanying sleight of hand – how, for him, borders are “magic money lines” because currency, contraband and even people all change their worth when they move over these arbitrary boundaries. At the same time, three disillusioned, jobless young men – Berlin, Billy and Horse – become increasingly angry at what they perceive as threats: immigrants, interlopers, people coming to steal their jobs. This anger eventually erupts into violence.
Longhurst’s production is as tender as it is potent; it’s visually striking too. Chloe Lamford’s atmospheric set divides the stage in two, the bottom half consisting of institutional oxblood tiles and moulded plastic seats, the top half of decaying concrete dotted with a few tiny houses. A bank of fluorescent lighting shimmies each time a train passes. Surtitles are used to announce each new scene and each act begins with a chorus. The final moments are, quite literally, incendiary.
There are some really strong performances here, from the ever-reliable Cook, and from Marsay in particular, 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. With deftness and intent, Longhurst’s production demonstrates how prophetic a text this is – a diagnosis from the past, a warning.