Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Chain Bridge- The Street Theatre

Review by John Lombard

Script by Tom Davis. Directed by Caroline Stacey.

Few people in real life host dinner parties so they confront their guests with accusations - at the very least, it is extremely bad manners. Even so, historian Imre (Peter Cook) and his wife Sarah (Kate Hosking) do just this with Imre's mother Eva (Geraldine Turner) and her close friends Jozef and Katalin (PJ Williams and Zsuszi Soboslay), inviting the three survivors of World War 2 Hungary over for bad soup and a vicious interrogation on just how they survived not only the Nazis but the Communists.

An even half-alert audience member is aware that if Eva and her friends don't talk about their experiences in these harrowing "bloodlands", it is probably because the truth is too brutal and horrible and degrading to reveal over bad fish soup. Nonetheless, Imre is a zealot, hounding his mother with the rigour of a prosecuting attorney, pouncing ferociously whenever her story does not quite match the few surviving documentary records.

The script works hard to give Imre a lot of motivation to coax the truth from his mother. First, he is a struggling academic, and the book he is writing about her experiences could make his reputation and career. Second (and more implausibly) he and his wife have been engaged in a longstanding debate over the nature of truth, and his mother telling all just might save their slightly frayed marriage. On a more deep level, Imre's mother was a "bad" one and he is struggling to save his own life by finding out what traumas stripped her of her ability to give him love.

Eva is a fabulist, filching scraps of other people's stories and inventing a heroic past for her family to replace the tawdry and dismal one they left behind. She is also worn out, reduced to the role of carping mother-in-law who joylessly criticises husband and wife for their many inadequacies. A tantalising glimpse of her years before, early in Imre's romance with Sarah, reveals a much softer woman, suggesting that her souring may be shockingly recent - perhaps she has wilted because of her son's blooming hatred.

In the end, the truth about Eva comes out, and we also learn that Imre was keeping secrets of his own. Importantly, we only have one brief glimpse of Imre's childhood: we never have enough evidence to say whether Eva really was a bad mother, although we can understand how her experiences might have stripped her of her ability to love. There is a mystery at the heart of the script, and the final scenes makes us question whether the events we saw really happened. Did Eva tell the truth? Did this night of confrontation and revelation really happen?

The play is fascinated with how people experience horrors but somehow are able to find the strength to endure them and even thrive. Elderly couple Katalin and Jozef are in the throes of lifelong romance, still singing and dancing and loving each other with fervour into old age. They have secrets of their own, but somehow they have not been swallowed by them. P. J. Williams and Zsuzsi Sobolay are delightful as this joyful couple - and form a vivid contrast with the bitter Eva - but the script is humane enough to show us that Eva's heartlessness is not entirely her own fault.

Finally the characters reach a mutual conclusion: "fuck history". However that is not the response the audience is likely to have, because the more the truth is revealed the more we connect with the characters. This is close to Imre's initial thesis that what is important in history is empathy and understanding - a thesis that is, strangely enough, the opposite of his actual actions during the play.

The recurring symbol of the fish soup is closer to the play's message: Imre meticulously dictate the recipe followed by his mother, but somehow the soup always comes out bad. Only when Imre and Katalin take over and add what's not written down does it come out right.  What's written down may be rigorously true, but we are wise to be alert to silences as well.

Even if Imre is destined to go on making bad soup, this play has all the right ingredients - a stunning cast, a strong script and excellent staging create a powerful, thought-provoking experience.