I first came across Bridget Boland’s Cockpit some twenty-five years ago when I was looking for plays by women in the first half of the twentieth century. Cockpit was a wonderful find: a drama set at the end of the Second World War in which a German theatre provides a temporary ‘home’ for Displaced Persons (D.P.s) from across Europe. Introducing the published script after the play’s premiere at the Playhouse Theatre in 1948 and subsequent production for ‘miners in the halls of South Wales and the North-East’, drama critic J.C. Trewin prophesied that it would ‘become, undeniably, a valued period piece’. He was wrong on two counts. On the one hand, he underestimated how plays by women are all too easily ‘lost’ in the annals of theatre history and therefore cease to be ‘valued’ at all. On the other, to re-discover the play is to recognise its value not as a ‘period piece’ but as a drama that continues to speak to the vexed idea of a European ‘community’.
I made repeated attempts in the early nineties to acquire the amateur rights for a student production of Cockpit; I was certain that the play would resonate with a Europe then undergoing a period of transformation after the fall of the Berlin wall, and witnessing the hostilities in former Yugoslavia. Permission was denied: seemingly someone, or some theatre organisation, had acquired the rights and was reluctant to allow an amateur staging ahead of a professional production.
So, I was more than delighted to discover that Edinburgh’s Lyceum had unearthed Cockpit for a professional run (6-28 October): finally, a chance to see if my long-held belief in Boland’s play was well-placed. The play and the production did not disappoint. Boland was way ahead of today’s fashion for immersive theatre: she instructed that the venue be ‘turned for the purpose of the production into the Hoftheater of Deutscheshof’; her directions indicate that the entire auditorium should be made-over as a temporary refuge for D.P.s. Battered suitcases were piled high in the Lyceum’s foyer. Inside, as per Boland’s instructions, there were banners proclaiming, ‘No Fighting’, or ‘No Knives Longer Than 3 Inches’; small bundles of possessions were dotted around the stalls. And seating some of the audience on stage suggested another bank of D.P.s waiting to be repatriated.
Under director Wils Wilson, a strong ensemble rendered the hostilities that repeatedly break out between different factions: Polish women, one of whom is also Jewish, dispute the possession of a saucepan; a French farmer is denounced as a collaborator by a young woman from the Resistance. Trying to keep control of the situation is a British Officer, Ridley (Peter Hannah) and his Geordie sergeant, Barnes (Deka Walmsley). To that end, Barnes has done his best to keep neighbouring countries apart: ‘The nearer they live back home, the further apart I’ve kept them in this theatre’. Tensions escalate as Ridley commands that people gather together according to whether they need to travel onwards to the East or to the West respectively. Only when there is a suspected case of bubonic plague in the house do the D.P.s rally to overcome their differences; when that turns out to be a false alarm, the chaos and hostilities resume.
To break the tension, the stage manager (Dylan Read) who has stayed on to look after the theatre of which he is so enormously proud, organises for the venue to function once more as a performance space. What starts out as a comic episode as he organises makeshift lights and a costume for a D.P. who was once an opera singer (Sandra Kassman), turns into a skin-pricking, virtuoso moment. As the singer struggles to find her voice there is little more than a hesitant whispering; coming into voice as Violetta from La Traviata Kassman held the audience spellbound. It was a poignant, moving moment: a reminder of theatre’s capacity to yearn for what Ridley describes in the closing moments of the play as our ‘common humanity’: ‘one human voice, holding all this chaos together’.
This revival of Cockpit could not be timelier: while the Brexit talks grind on, one can’t help but feel the irony of a play that depicts the British as failing to produce harmony out of chaos. Or, to put this another way, this is a painful reminder of the ‘theatre of politics’ in which there is no ‘human voice holding all the Brexit chaos together’.