Veteran U.K. television scribe Ian Kennedy Martin’s first stage play is a paradoxical mix of old and new. Though formally conservative, it represents a ground-breaking confrontation with a historical problem Ireland has spent much of the past 60 years dancing around uncomfortably: its supposed neutrality in WWII. While the young nation formally remained outside the conflict, it provided support to (or at least tolerated) the efforts of both sides. Its engagement with Germany went so far as — the historical fact Martin grabs onto here — the exchange of diplomats throughout what Ireland quaintly called “The Emergency.”
Play is set in the Irish legation (government offices) in Berlin circa 1942, where two minor diplomats, Mallin (Sean Campion) and O’Kane (Owen McDonnell) are digging through documents trying to determine whether their immediate predecessor was spying for Britain. German official Kollvitz (Peter Moreton), whose ultimate responsibilities and loyalties they know little about, visits frequently, keeping tabs on the two men and eyeing up pretty German cook Christe (Isla Carter).
Martin lays out Ireland’s divided position through his over-schematic depiction of the Irishmen: O’Kane is a feckless gambling addict who only landed in the foreign service, he endlessly reminds us, because his father was friendly with President Eamon de Valera, but who discovers a conscience when he hears what’s happening in the concentration camps. Mallin is a rules-based cipher whose motivations we discover too late, in an excellent eleventh hour speech revealing the depth of his nationalist, anti-British feeling.
The playwright wends another, more familiar, story through the Irish plot: Kollvitz is, we discover, a stock-hateful Nazi who is both sexually interested in secretly Jewish Christe and in pursuit of her brother, believed to be a communist organizer.
Excellent perfs from the whole cast put considerable meat on sometimes bare dramatic bones. In particular, Moreton and Carter’s sensitive playing carries off a tension-filled but taste-free first-act closing scene in which Kollvitz blackmails Christe and forces her to strip naked. This unnecessary objectification of a woman’s body adds to the play and production’s old-fashioned feel.
Little about the drama feels necessarily theatrical rather than televisual, but Michael Rudman’s production is sturdy and moves the action along efficiently. The screening of historical film clips during scene changes covers the continual strewing around and clearing up of papers to indicate the passage of time.
Despite its flaws, the play eventually poses a powerful moral question summed up in its titular metaphor (referring to a train that passes Bergen-Belsen): at what point will any individual — or any country — be compelled to step out of the forward motion of history and protest the atrocities happening along the way?
The question of Ireland’s complicity with the Nazi regime has been such a hot-button topic it was barely mentioned in public life until recent years, as historians and dramatists have begun sticking their toes in those murky waters. So far, stage treatments have been somewhat indirect, tending to family stories (Frank McGuinness’ “Dolly West’s Kitchen”) and arch parodies (Arthur Riordan and Bell Helicopter’s “Improbable Frequency,” recently seen in New York). Martin’s treatment of the issues is strikingly outspoken; one wonders how this play would be received in Ireland.