The Pera Palas is a landmark of Istanbul and the fulcrum on which Sinan Unel’s play turns. The playwright’s multi-stranded narrative weaves a tapestry of modern Turkish history across three generations, all threaded through the grand old hotel.
Characters from different epochs share the stage at the same time – like echoes from the past – coming to communicate with each other at the end, as modern Turkey addresses its difficult historic self, caught between East and West. It is an ambitious structure and there is a little imbalance between some narratives – such as that of Georgina Landau’s fifties American teacher Kathy, who marries the idealistic and passionate Orhan (Patrick Miles). On the whole, though, the play just about succeeds in its aim to address a complex historical and political narrative through individual emotional dramas.
Rebecca Calder exhibits a resolute independence and revolutionary spirit as pioneering journalist Evelyn, who spends time as a guest in a Turkish harem at the decline of the Ottoman Empire. She also plays the modern, sexually liberated, professional Sema, sister of Murat – the product of Evelyn’s championed progressiveness, but hardly any happier for it. There is much doubling up and this is used to comic and pointed effect in a switching of gender roles, which sharpens the commentary on sexual politics within the play. Alexander Giles’ Murat, returning home to confront father Orhan, and boyfriend Brian (Steve Dineen) provide a light touch as a gay couple from 1994, as Turkey faces a rise in Islamic extremism after an extended period as a secular state. George Tardios is compelling as the father, confronting his own guilt and sense of disillusionment.
The stage is designed in the round and achieves the goal of placing the audience in the action. Part of the viewing gallery is constructed of large cushions and throws. Actors run around behind the audience and singing and music rises up from the outer walls, driving the drama onward. The Arcola has a bold vision and lets fly with this ambitious tale, which concludes the Orient Express season – an intelligent and broad appraisal of Turkey and the Turkish diaspora, part of which has established its own thriving community here in Dalston.