Bridget Boland's lost drama explores the story of a British officer who arrives at a provincial playhouse in Germany, 1945 which is being used as a housing spot for displaced people following the end of World War 2. He is charged with getting them all into groups to travel back to their respective homelands, but as you can imagine, not all people based geographically near one another are also so close on the political spectrum.
The play itself being set in a theatre, Cockpit is then staged across the entire space of the Lyceum - from the stage to the balconies and at seat level as well. Whole rows of the audience are seated on makeshift stalls at the back of the stage, looking back at the traditionally seated audience, and actors/actresses prowl all areas of the theatre throughout.
While most of the action still takes place on stage, there are regularly shouts, murmurs and conversations which take place elsewhere in the theatre.
The audience are then cast in the role of refugees also. They’re very much in the centre of the staging of the play. It creates an atmosphere much more engulfing than the usual audience vs. stage. There’s a feeling throughout that anything could happen, and that it could happen anywhere.
And the Lyceum was transformed suitably for the occasion.
Instructive banners (“No arms may be carried”, etc.) were draped all over the theatre, at every level, taking it back to the time and place. The fact that all of this is in place not just from the get go but from before the play has even begun - and that the set extends not just to the theatre house but to the stairs and entrance as well - provides a stronger sense of setting than we’ve experienced in some time.
“We can’t leave the French to sort out Europe,” says Deka Walmsley's Geordie Sergeant Barnes, helping hand to Glaswegian leading man Peter Hannah’s Captain Ridley. There are obvious and clear parallels throughout to the state of affairs which lead to 52% of the UK voting for B_____, and to the pickle it has left Britain in now. “You fought for democracy and like it or not, democracy is what you’re going to get” is a sentence that draws a self-aware (hopefully mournful) laugh from the crowd.
There is also the far more surface link in the play to the thousands of refugees who are indeed displaced throughout Europe now. It brings into question their handling, and condemns their demonisation.
Hannah stands out as the well-meaning protagonist trying to make the best of a tough situation and Kaisa Hammarland excels as the left-wing French Marie with viewpoints too strong for her own good, but in truth none of the cast falter throughout.
There is one strange moment in which live music (albeit very well executed live music) takes over the stage and the rest of the cast descend into some bizarre interpretive dance, but it’s hard to criticise what was a brave, original and utterly gripping performance.
The fact The Lyceum even thought to dig out such an experimental-style, provoking play is incredibly commendable. The manner in which director Wils Wilson and her team have then executed it is nothing short of outstanding.
Cockpit by Bridget Boland runs from 6-28 October 2017 at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.