THE DAWN OF WAR, 1914
World War I and its aftermath are being well served by theatre (my last year’s reflections, http://tinyurl.com/q53tp5p). But Jeremy James’ play is the first I have encountered which concerns itself with its beginnings. It builds up to the 1914 trigger moment, when the Serb assassin Gavrilo Princip shot dead the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (and his wife) on their visit to Sarajevo.
The Archduke was heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which sprawled over half of Europe. The friction with the other great power bloc – France, Britain, Russia – and the complex disagreements in the Balkan countries led to a diplomatic crisis and then to war. Historians still wrestle with the disastrous, unnecessary immense outcome. But this play runs up to the actual assassination, dealing with two separate “causes” and two sets of conspirators. Andrew Shepherd’s production for ACS Ransom emerges as both fascinating and frustrating.
Jeremy James frames it with a 1964 moment as an old Hungarian artist – Tony Wredden patriarchally folksy as Sandor – suffers a stroke. Angela Dixon as his great-niece Margit, a flat-toned prosy psychotherapist and hypno-therapist, leads him to recover his darkest memories. So the centre of the stage is a bold, colourfully realized bohemian artists’ studio where young Sandor (Jesse de Coste, in an intense, charismatic professional debut) meets Tibor (Rbert Wilde) and young Medve, who is a girl cross-dressed as a boy to keep her artistic freedom. Emma Mulkern, in another good West End debut, plays Medve young, sweet, and eventually lovelorn and disastrous.
They are Hungarian patriots , and decide to travel to Sarajevo to assassinate the Archduke and free their country from the Austrian yoke. Meanwhile, however, a quite separate plot is brewing (the one which eventually gets the job done) as Alexander Nash as a sinister Colonel recruits Mark Joseph’s Major Tankosik to the Black Hand, a Serbian nationalist group. They want the Slav provinces freed to become a greater Yugoslavia.
The two groups of plotters could hardly be more different in tone. The artists centrestage, puppyish and idealistic, argue about Kandinsky and Klimt in between setting up an inefficient gun deal and missing Archduke-shaped targets in the garden of their lodgings. In the darker corner, the Black Hand duo grow ever more Blackadderish, with Nash as the leader ramping up sinister threats about poisoned coffee and drowning hostile editors in their own barrels of ink; while a flustered Tankosik forever reports disasters caused by his six highly inefficient assassins (the final successful shot, it seems, was by chance because the cortege moved backwards and Princip was in the wrong place, having sloped off for a quick coffee). So that’s all quite funny, with lines like “The cows must not come home to roost!”. Meanwhile the artist Medve, aka Sofja, has cold feet and is tempted to betray the other artists; the two sets of plotters clash, despite their common interest, and the idealists come to disaster.
Oddly, there’s no problem with having a widely different tone in the two plots, one farcical- but-successful and the other honest and tragic. It keeps you watching: sweet-sour, a reflection on futility which carries you forward into thinking about the futility of the whole Great War. For a début playwright, it’s a daring experiment and a good one.
But the awful flaw is the framing: the terrible plonking psycho-jargon given to Margit in the 1964 sections – she proses on about even the traitor artist suffering “obsessive compulsion”, and atrociously concludes after the key tragic memory emerges that she and the old artist would “work through it” . Just as if he was some 21c crybaby with self-esteem issues. It is all the more jarring, because the dénouement of the young Hungarian conspirators’ story actually is strong and moving when the remembered events are brought before us. :We really don’t need the clunking reassurance that old Sandor will resolve his “issues”. Come off it: theatre is its own catharsis – it is pity, terror, empathy, silent private reflection. Cut the frame off and this picture would glow brighter.
box office 020 7287 2875 to 26 march