A desperate economy, the rise of neo-fascism, people fleeing from their home across the continent…
David Greig’s Europe was written 25 years ago, but in his debut production as Artistic Director at the Donmar Warehouse, Michael Longhurst’s revival of the piece could just have easily been penned last week.
We’re greeted by a train station, a row of seats in a waiting room, a sign saying ‘no trains’, and an information board that displays a headline for each scene of the play. This is an ‘anywhere’ town, but one on the border, struggling with a changing political and societal environment. “Ours is a small town on the border, at various times on this side, and, at various times, on the other, but always on the border.”
Sava (Kevork Malikyan) and his daughter Katya (Natalia Tena) are sat in the waiting room – refugees waiting for a train that will never come, and for a future without fear. Despite initial unease with the stationmaster, Fret (Ron Cook), and his assistant, Adele (Faye Marsay), more interested in dreaming of the cities further along the tracks, over the next couple of hours relationships grow and strengthen over a longing for a more secure and prosperous future. But while the microcosm of friendship builds, the anti-migrant hatred of a group of jobless locals looms.
The real genius of Europe is its ability to explore the contrast between a want for a peaceful, unified future across the region and the ever-changing, unstable reality through the lens of just a hopeful and despairing few. Sava speaks of the search for dignity while faced with hell, while a local entrepreneur sees borders simply as a “magic money-line”. This small border station becoming a metaphor for a continent.
It does this through some precision direction from Longhurst, with not a movement or a moment wasted. Each of the 20 scenes brings the piece forward with impact and heart. Chloe Lamford and Tom Visser’s design is stunning, making the station both a realistic, incredibly detailed reflection of a crumbling town, plus a visceral space in which rage and despair can be laid bare. We’re given a tour de force display of pyrotechnics towards the close, too.
Against this backdrop are some truly standout performances. Both Cook and Malikyan bring emotive, layered, and gripping performances as Fret and Sava forming an unlikely alliance respectively, while Faye Marsay and Natalia Tena truly fly, conveying the conflict, longing and lust inside their minds with wondrous ease. Meanwhile, as the jobless young men who turn to anti-migrant violence under the pressures of a failing economy, both Billy Howle and Theo Barklem-Biggs bring a real rush of blood to the piece.
Though occasionally there are places where Grieg’s writing delivers a lull in momentum, with the odd scene feeling just a few moments too long and too predictable, some first-rate acting and excellent production mostly has the play zipping along with meaning in every word, holding you firmly in its grasp. Longhurst really has excelled with Europe as a debut pick – salient, significant, and must-see.
Europe runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 10th August.
Words by Ollie Cole.