Never has art history been more compelling than in David Edgar’s post-Cold War drama, in which a fresco on the wall of a church in Eastern Europe becomes the battleground for clashes between different languages, cultures, religions and ideologies – much like the unnamed post-Communist state of the play has been the scene of invasion upon invasion throughout its troubled history.
After a huge effort of near-compulsive searching, museum curator Gabriela Pecs has unearthed a mural that she believes could completely change the face of art history, proving that the style of painting that set the groundwork for the Renaissance was in fact born not in the West as believed, but in the East. To assist her in her discovery, she enlists English art scholar Oliver Davenport, but their efforts are soon interrupted by the competing objections of the Orthodox and Catholic priests who both lay claim to the church and by the outrage of American art historian Leo Katz, who believes that ancient art should be left alone rather than cosmetically restored to its former glory.
In the fierce debates between Gabriela, Oliver and Leo, Edgar questions both the value and meaning of art. The high art versus low art debate is invoked by the beliefs of Oliver, who argues that we should not distinguish between art and artefact and that we might talk of the Mona Lisa in the same breath as Star Trek. It is an intriguing suggestion, but one that equally renders their restoration efforts almost entirely pointless, a paradox that reveals just how self-serving Oliver’s motivations really are. What Edgar gradually reveals is how this one piece of art of questionable origin is made to mean different things to different individuals, each of whom would impose their own ideology and motives onto this painting.
As well as representing a personal and political battlefield, Edgar questions the easy assumption that art is redemptive and civilising. After all, as one of his characters points out, the guards at Auschwitz listened to Mozart. Any link between art and morality, Edgar illustrates with piercing clarity, is pure wishful fallacy – yet neither is art reduced to a worthless status. The fresco almost becomes a character in its own right, an object whose fate we ultimately care about, achieved mainly through the steely passion of Pinar Ogun’s Gabriela. In order for this piece to truly captivate an audience, Gabriela must infect us with her all-consuming, fevered enthusiasm for her discovery and what it might mean for her nation, a feat that is compellingly accomplished by Ogun, who manages to retain our sympathy even after objecting to her country becoming a dumping ground for the ‘dregs of Europe’, as she disdainfully dubs desperately fleeing asylum seekers.
As integral as art is to the play, however, this is about more than arguments on aesthetics. When, as we move into the second half, the church is invaded by a band of refugees and a thus far intellectual drama escalates into a hostage situation, Edgar is given the opportunity to draw out themes of national identity and the old East versus West divide, a barrier that was not broken down along with the Berlin Wall; the Iron Curtain may have lifted, but a scarcely penetrable veil remains. This is eloquently expressed in confrontations between the simmering melting pot of nationalities brought together in the church and particularly by vitriolic refugee leader Yasmin, who explodes our smug Western stance of superiority.
These expansive ideas and many more are given room to breathe in the large, suitably atmospheric space of St Leonard’s Church, all cold exposed stone and peeling paintwork. The script risks being smothered, however, by a busy, frenetic production from Charm Offensive. The decision to stage this play in this environment is one that makes utter sense, but unfortunately the acoustics are against them, with reverberation draining the sense from many lines – a considerable predicament in a play that is mostly talk. Add to this the sheer amount that is often going on at once, particularly once the refugees arrive on the scene, and Edgar’s beautifully expressed themes are occasionally in danger of floundering.
Director Gavin McAlinden has assembled a rich cast of mixed nationalities, a cultural blend that adds authenticity to a piece in which language, nationality and culture are so vital, though the performances emerging from this mix are uneven. The production remains held together, however, by strong central characterisations from Jonathan Sidgwick as Oliver and from Ogun in the role of Gabriela. As her passion seeps uncontrollably through each stone of the building, it is hard to sweep questions of art and cultural and national identity aside.
Image: Maddy Gasson