It would be heartening to report that David Greig’s 1994 play about xenophobia and social collapse in a changing Europe was now an out-of-date relic from the post-Berlin Wall days of civil war in the former Yugoslavia. If anything, however, the forceful revival by helmer Douglas Rintoul, which opened in Dundee before a run at London’s Barbican, shows this crisply written and intelligent play to be more politically pertinent than ever.
Greig is Scotland’s most prolific playwright. He has written for the RSC (“Victoria,” “The American Pilot”), the Young Vic (“Herge’s Adventures of Tintin”) and the Edinburgh Intl. Festival (“San Diego,” “The Speculator”).
He loves to set his plays in neutral terrain, anonymous wine bars and hotel rooms where his characters struggle for definition, deprived of the sense of identity provided by home and community.
The setting for “Europe,” one of his earliest plays, is classic Greig: a railway station in a border town, “at various times on this side, at various times on the other,” where the trains no longer stop. What little sense of pride the locals once had is being eroded by the collapse of industry and a changing world order. It’s a place increasingly without meaning.
Into this arid landscape, realized in the neon strip lights and blank advertising hoardings of Colin Richmond’s set, Greig introduces two refugees. Michelle Bonnard brings great stoicism and a hint of vulnerability to the part of Katia, a tough and guarded traveler, while Katia’s father Sava, as played by Johannes Flaschberger, has a Zen-like calm as he rides with the tides of fortune.
The two are victims of a conflict in some unnamed land — in 2004 it could have been Bosnia; today it could be Iraq or Sudan — and have no home to return to.
Had Greig placed them in some metropolis — one of the cities dreamt of by Samantha Young’s Adele, an untraveled young station porter — theirs would have been just another sad tale of wandering refugees. But by bringing them to Nowheresville, the playwright makes them two restless souls among many.
“She doesn’t look like she’d be local anywhere,” says one character about Katia, with Greig’s typically wry humor, but it’s an observation that could be true about any of them.
The theme of national and local identity is one that recurs throughout Greig’s work. Here he uses it to suggest that once people begin to lose their grip on the certainties of place and community, the forces of social breakdown set in.
What begins as a comedy about the irony of a station without trains gradually moves into darker territory as first Sava and then Chris Ryman’s wheeler-dealer Morocco are victims of racially motivated assaults followed by a fatal arson attack on the station itself. The real provocation for this fascist upsurge is not so much the outsiders’ arrival as the local population’s crumbling sense of identity.
“Europe” is about more than any one particular political moment. It’s a reflection on our psychological need for a supportive community and a place with a beating cultural heart. Although we laugh at Adele’s tourist-guide cliches as she yearns for the great European capitals, we can equally understand her need to escape such a nondescript home.
Rintoul’s production is a touch too sober — and his decision to obscure several roof-top scenes behind the lighting gantry is odd — but he treats the play with the intelligence it deserves, producing a welcome and authoritative revival.