Cockpit @ The Edinburgh Lyceum 6th - 28th October 2017
A post-WWII drama (literally) on stage
Cockpit, directed by Wils Wilson, is an adaptation of a 1948 play by Bridget Boland - which was also, incidentally, adapted as a British film called The Lost People (1949). It is set in the aftermath of WWII in a British-occupied German theatre, which is being used as a temporary holding location for displaced people from all over Europe. Since there is no food available in the building, the British must quickly move them onto their allies to either the West (America) of the East (Russia).
However, it quickly becomes apparent that the various ethnicities are unwilling to cooperate due to them having their own respective political tensions to deal with: a Polish woman squabbles with a Jewish compatriot over an allegedly stolen pot, a Serb and a Croat squabble over some food looted from a bakery, a French resistance woman is at loggerheads with a man whom she accuses of collaborating with the Nazis and so on. The Poles also refuse to be handed over to the Russians for fear that their old rivalries will result in them being executed. The two British soldiers in charge - Captain Ridley (Peter Hannah) and Sergeant Barnes (Deka Walmsley) - try desperately to keep the peace.
Things soon become even more difficult when it is revealed that one of the people in the theatre has become inflicted with what could potentially be the bubonic plague - necessitating that the building is locked down and quarantined.
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From the moment you step into The Lyceum it becomes clear that Cockpit is a singularly immersive production. In the lobby, you are greeted with the sight of hand-made signs on white pieces of cloth, clothing draped over hand railings and more. This is continued in The Lyceum’s auditorium itself, which is also bedecked with wooden ladders that are used by the performers during the show. We also hear some background humming, whistling and singing prior to the start of the play. It effectively helps to establish notion in the patrons’ minds that the play’s setting is the theatre itself. While it’s not an interactive play as such, the idea does imbue an extra connection between audience and performance that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
A sobering look at the tribalism of humanity
Contrary to popular belief, lingering European animosities were far more complex around the time of WWII than merely the central Allied vs. Axis conflict. The play is structured out of a series of character vignettes, most of which paint a picture of a Europe of disagreement, one of simmering paranoia and resentment. The nature of tribalism and its inbuilt propensity to engender hatred towards others is explored throughout.
However, rather than merely functioning as a grim reality check, the play forms a compelling call to action for the imperative of one race - the human race - to work together to overcome challenges. This is something which becomes clear when the group are quarantined and need to share what little food they have in order to stave off the threat of them being weakened enough for the disease to take hold - whatever the misgivings of the Croatian partisan who stole it has against it being shared with his enemies.
Cockpit features some great acting by a pan-European cast, as well as the odd powerfully-used musical interlude. A later one, featuring Sandra Kassmann singing an operatic piece (in a sort of “play within the play”), is particularly stirring and memorable. It’s a long play (2 hours, not including a 20-minute interval) but its complexity in terms of storyline and the number of characters involved justifies the length. Okay, so maybe the second half doesn’t quite maintain the same momentum as the first, but that’s more of a testament to how tense the earlier establishing sequences are than a criticism of the later part of the story.
Overall, Cockpit is well worth catching this month at The Lyceum. It’s an unusually ambitious but impressively-executed production with a thought-provoking script.
Tickets are available from the following link: