Monday, November 23, 2015

The Chain Bridge by Tom Davis

The Chain Bridge by Tom Davis.  Presented by The Street, directed by Caroline Stacey.  Designer – Imogen Keen; Sound – Kimmo Vennonen; Lighting – Gillian Schwab.  At The Street One, November 21-29, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 22

Most serious plays tell us truths we need to hear.  The Chain Bridge does that in one sense, but is also a salutary reminder that in some circumstances knowing the truth might be more destructive than we can bear.  Some of the best plays in the canon – like, say, Oedipus Rex or King Lear – have this theme.

Though Canberra writer Tom Davis, in this play, doesn’t have the same sense of economy of form as Sophocles or Shakespeare, his story of a young academic couple – Sarah (Kate Hosking) and her Hungarian-background husband Imre (Peter Cook) – arguing about the need for accuracy of historical truth in the book he is about to publish becomes as grim as Oedipus gouging out his eyes, when the truths about how Imre’s mother Eva (Geraldine Turner) survived the Nazi occupation at the end of World War II and the 1956 Hungarian revolution against the Russian occupiers, and finally arrived as a refugee in Australia in 1958. 

Two others had also escaped from Budapest – Katalin (Zsuzsi Soboslay) and József (PJ Williams) – arriving here in 1957, whose histories were closely entwined with Eva’s story.  Sarah, marrying into this migrant family where covering up truths is a necessary part of being freed from an awful past – being free in Australia – senses that she is not being told the truth, certainly by Imre’s mother, but maybe even by Imre himself.  Who, especially, was Imre’s father, mysteriously absent from the scene in Melbourne?

Since revelation is the purpose of the play, it’s not my place to reveal more of the story apart from saying that a resolution is achieved.  Sarah and Imre are nearly torn apart, but finally a point is reached where they are able to respect each other, and so can love each other – and let the argument about the truth become academic rather than a tear in the fabric of their relationship.

So the play is, in essence, very good.  It’s a measure of the success of The Street’s Hive playwriting program, including its First Seen staged readings, which provided the development stage of this work and Tom Davis’ next work, The Faithful Servant, which will appear in 2016.

An essential part of The Street’s role as a professional theatre emphasising new writing in Canberra is to give the works high quality direction and design.  Caroline Stacey is Artistic Director and CEO of the The Street and, for this production has put together an excellent team on stage and backstage.  The script requires scenes in Imre and Sarah’s Melbourne home to morph into remembered (or perhaps not truthfully remembered) scenes in Budapest, including occasions such as the German SS blowing up the Chain Bridge, the crossing of the Danube from Pest on the eastern side to Buda on the western bank, on the route from Hungary into Austria – an escape route from the Russian invasion.

This meant the actors playing the core roles all needed to play a wide variety of other roles in those historical (or maybe not truly historical) scenes.  The list looks bewildering:

Geraldine Turner – Eva/Woman/Villager/Townsman/Private (as in ‘soldier’)
Peter Cook – Imre/Tabor/Wisliceny/Arrow Cross/Gerö/Protester
Kate Hosking – Sarah/Deborah/Villager/Townsman/Corporal/Protester
ZsuZsi Soboslay – Katalin/Woman/Agnes/Dora/Villager/Townsman/Sergeant
PJ Williams – József/Samuel/Ferenc/Doctor/Villager/Townsman/Lieutenant/Arrow Cross, Domokos/Szabo

Phew!  Yet all these roles were clear, even including in scenes where some characters were in the past while others were in the present.  In fact there were scenes where past and present would shift from one to the other during continuous action.  It’s a measure of the careful writing and, of course, of the care taken in directing – as well as the skills of the actors in establishing and maintaining characters on cue. 

Set, lighting and sound required as much agility (just to throw in a current political term).  The basic set was abstract in form, using long narrow vertical poles which, with horrifyingly realistic sound effects of bomb explosions and gunfire, and lighting which could pick out details of a particular pole or characters between poles, gave the viewer an ever-changing array of images as time and place shifted.

Then there was the clever device of books, the play being about writing a book and about the ‘truth’ written in books.  Books were everywhere, with an interesting twist as they became the stones thrown at the Soviet Russian invaders.  Wikipedia tells the story of “The Hungarian resistance [which] continued until 10 November. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the conflict, and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees.” (

It takes concentration on the audience’s part, over three hours with a 20 minute interval, but the effort is well worthwhile.  There’s a message here that we should all be careful about making assumptions about our neighbours in multicultural Australia.  To quote as nearly as I can remember: “It’s not just a story when your parents have been killed.”  And, of course, it’s highly ironic to watch this play about refugees from Hungary finding freedom in Australia while Hungary is building fences to keep out the refugees flooding in from being bombed in Syria.

For me there was also a personal note.  Only a year ago, before the refugee torrent was under way, I visited Budapest, heard the stories about how people tried to make their Communism into a softer form and provided others (such as a community of Serbs) with a bit more freedom than in other states, and the chance to cross into Austria where the Iron Curtain was a bit rusty.

I heard too about the 400-year history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the rule of the Hapsburg family, and the building of the Buda Palace – and I enjoyed the evening lights and the soup and dumplings on a Danube River cruise under the Chain Bridge, rebuilt with its sculptured horses.  But now I know so much more about the reality of the lives, especially of the women and how they survived.  I was born about the same time as Eva, winter 1940/41, and also have memories (but from London), perhaps true or maybe not entirely so, of hiding under a reinforced table in case the house was bombed, of air-raid sirens, of being born in such a snow-storm that my father could not get to the hospital. There was much in this play to remind me. 

I arrived in Australia in early 1955, while in 1956 a young teacher – the best English teacher I ever had – left Sydney to go to Hungary to watch, if not take part in, the revolution to throw the Russians out.  Whether he succeeded or not I will never know, since a recent book (2014) by a classmate records that Neil Hope, nicknamed Soap or Sope, “left the shores of Australia for what he hoped would be a less philistine society in Italy, only to die there in a motor-scooter accident.” 

As The Chain Bridge suggests, to know the truth about even one’s own past is not necessarily to know what really happened.

Whole cast of The Chain Bridge - dress rehearsal
Photo by Lorna Sim