This stunning production is not just a revival; it's a rediscovery of a genuinely forgotten jewel of mid-century British political theatre. It's a breathtaking piece of work: bold and subtle, thrilling and ambiguous, pleasurable and daring. It has just ended its run at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh. Who will give it a further life?
Cockpit is set just after the Second World War in a theatre in an unnamed German town; the theatre has been requisitioned by British troops to temporarily warehouse all the people displaced by the depredations of war before being returned to their homelands. But this means French collaborators are here alongside Resistance fighters, Russians with Poles, Chetniks with Partisans and more. There is a constant threat of revolt, only briefly quelled by what seems to be an outbreak of Bubonic Plague. As the play ends, the faultlines open up again and this time the guns are turned on the British.
The choice of Wils Wilson to direct this is a touch of genius. Wilson's more usually associated with site-specific or site-responsive work, placing shows in boats or pubs or nightclubs. But this is a site-specific play for a theatre as a theatre. As we enter, there are banners through the auditorium; ladders have been fixed between the stalls and circle, between the boxes and the stage. And this extends into front of house where there are banners announcing that the theatre has been requisitioned and through the foyer and up the stairs piles of suitcases and shoes, that horribly moving evocation of refugees. The Lyceum is a sumptuous C J Phipps-designed theatre from the 1880s, all warm, enclosing curves with a tall, imposing proscenium, the gilding currently picked out against a powder blue motif. It's a terrific building but it's also a very conventional-seeming theatre so this kind of reinvention is all the more potent. and all the more thrillling
The architecture's semiotic of grandeur and conservativism works beautifully for this production, helping to underscore the play's many ambiguities. The British soldiers running the building are, notionally, our heroes, at least at first. They are in charge; they have oversight of everything else that happens and they seem to be trying to do the best for these refugees. But it becomes increasingly clear that they just don't 'get' Europe. The recent and immemorial rivalries, tensions, enmities cannot be stamped out by a stern word or at the other end of a pistol. Slowly it becomes clear that the soldiers' approach to Europe is desperately inadequate. There is the small comic part of the stage manager, immensely proud of his theatre, who equips the soldiers with stage properties and, at one moment, makes possible a moment of blissful near-transcendence as one refugee, revealed as a singer, performs Violetta's aria from La Traviata. But his ushering in of stage settings only makes more absurd the British claim to authority; it just makes them look like fakes. It's a fiercely clever play.
I should own up that I have some skin in this game. I think I discovered the play when I wrote about it in 1956 and All That. Since then, a lot of theatres have been in touch with me to get a copy of the play, including a couple of our national companies, but it was David Greig at the Lyceum who had the commitment and clarity to actually programme it. I can't tell you how moving it was, 25 years after I sat in the British Library, not quite believing what I was reading, finding that yes indeed, this is a terrific play that completely holds the stage and feels as fresh now as it did in 1948.
Yeah, 1948. Part of what is so extraordinary is how ahead of its time this play is. It's the kind of immersive environmental theatre experience that we associate with the 1960s and with our own century. Its political subtlety and its expert link with theatrical form is staggering. Bridget Boland was a London-born Irish writer who started writing screenplays but, during the war where she served in the Women's Auxiliaries, she became involved in the ABCA play unit, a group of soldiers putting on plays to dramatise current affairs for the troops, confined the barracks between Dunkirk and D-Day. The techniques used were those of the leftist theatre of the 1930s: mass declamation, agit-prop, living newspaper, a bit of Brecht. It's one of the lesser known stories of British theatre that this kind of leftist work had a much wider influence on our stages through the unlikely conduit of the British army. And this is one of the most high-profile examples, a successful , critically-acclaimed West End run of a play using jubilant theatricality to ask hard questions about Britain's post-war role.
And this production is just sumptuous. The cast double invisibly to give you a full sense of a theatre thronging with people. Some of the audience sit on the stage, which amplifies the world further. The lighting by Kai Fischer is, dear God, ravishingly beautiful. Aly Macrae has woven music in and around the action, haunting folk songs from right across Europe that serve as a memory and a rebuke to the simplistic and slapdash worldmaking of the victors.
It is a huge, fantastic image of Britain's problematic relationship with Europe since the Second World War. It's funny; it's tense; it's ravishingly uplifting one minute; grimly despairing the next. It's got a brilliant multilingual cast and it should be seen again. London should see it. London would love it. There must be an unoccupied West End theatre that could take it. It's perfect for a dark theatre - it's a pop-up theatre show and it feels completely perfect for now. Come on, London theatre managers; Cockpit is waiting for you.