Last week director Freya Judd was aimlessly spun on a children’s merry-go-round. Despite the G-force, she managed to explain that it took nine months of preparation to create Pentecost– “the time it would take to have a child”. It was a pleasure to bear witness to the fruits of her labour: an urgent, touching and fantastically thought provoking work. This impeccably acted, masterfully constructed and all too relevantly written play needs to be seen, perhaps especially at Oxford.
The first character we see is the set; one of the best I’ve seen on a student stage. It’s the grubby wall of an abandoned church on which the fate and fortune of an anonymous eastern European culture has been inscribed. We see a people’s mural hailing ‘the great proletarian revolution’ (in Russian) painted on top of the native inscriptions of WW2 prisoners written during captivity by the Nazis. At the center of it all is the Virgin Mary and a cluster of angels, a work which our leads Oliver Davenport (Cassian Bilton) Gabriella Pecs (Maddy Walker) and Katz (Calam Lynch) believe is the original version of a famous Giotto fresco in Padova (The Scravigni Chapel in real life I think). Importantly, this is the fresco that incarnated the burgeoning humanist ideal of renaissance Europe.
Our three art experts squabble over the minor details of how to preserve and restore the work; if indeed they should. The opening half uses the uncertainty surrounding the fresco as a device to explore the relationship between the ‘universal European ideal’ and its relation to the ‘battlements of Europe’. This device is slick and very smart, it allows us to understand the complexity of dealing with the past in the post soviet east. Something to be forgotten, remembered, destroyed or even sold. Amidst this discussion, the cynical machinations of church and state emerge; both seeking to appropriate the fresco for their purposes. The educated European (Davenport) and American (Katz) are not however spared the satire as their self appointed positions as the custodians of culture are brutally denied. Davenport’s earnestly egalitarian view that anything can be art, is ridiculed by Gabriella who yearns to be part of a country with so much art that it can afford to elevate page three shots to the same level as a Michelangelo. Conversely Katz’s righteous talk of preserving the past, warts and all, is very much silenced when he is told that in this country, you (literally) eat your history to survive.
Issues over the authenticity and significance of historical iconography make Pentecost a smart play to stage in Oxford, not least due to the questions of cultural appropriation that come with it. But neither can it be denied this is the weaker half of the play, sometimes the dialogue came out garbled and it was hard to make out the direction of the conversation at times. I heard a lot f conversations during the intermission, to the effect of ‘what are they talking about?’.
The second half is where we see the power and intelligence of the piece. A group of refugees break into the church and hold the art experts hostage in exchange for new identities in Europe. Katz tries to cut a deal with the refugees, by persuading them that the fresco predates Giotto by a hundred years. This however was decided to be false on account of a pigment discovered at the end of the first half.
In the first few minutes the leader of the refugees (Yasmin, played by Daisy Hayes) chastises the experts for their arrogance in condescending to forgive the refugees for their actions. As if criminal justice were suspended in the third world, leaving the paternalist mercy of the west as the only means to redeem their sins. There is thus a brutal irony when Katz proposes that the refugees hold the painting hostage instead, for Katz effectively bargains a (fake) symbol of the European ideal in order to trick the refugees into thinking it is their ticket to living in the ideal of Europe. Is this a comment on the hypocrisy and double standard of the west? Or perhaps a comment on the fact there is no such thing as the light at the end of the tunnel? I won’t spoil how this situation resolves itself.
That the production should so eloquently pose the questions and yet retract any suggestion of an answer is to its credit. But what make it special is not just the brains, but the engrossing emotional drama that makes the questions hit home. It is a further credit that these emotions are refused any final catharsis.
The three leads were instrumental in this, each extremely likable and comical, but maintaining sufficient seriousness to prevent the dangerous descent into farce. Cassian Bilton shined in particular with his “notorious sang-froid, stiff-upper arse and consequent tight lip”. Every little detail of his performance conjured the character perfectly, from the little tug at his sleeves as he crouches to observe the fresco to his quivering at gunpoint. Calam Lynch has some excellent moments with an incredibly self-assured and controlled performance as the brash semi heroic American. The highlight however was the very subtly handled suggestion of romance between Davenport and Pecs, which owes much to an incredibly refined performance from Maddy Walker. She lets us see that it was basically going to happen without ever really saying so.
What was so impressive about the supporting cast was how well they assimilated minute details of their characters. Seamus Lavan for example, spoke a Polish dialect with an incredibly convincing Slavonic intonation. His flamenco dance was fairly on point as well. Ditto Daisy Hayes held an extraordinary presence in her outraged yet visibly vulnerable shows of anger.
This was an excellent play to put on in this town at this time – it is clear tothat it resonated heavily with the crowd. One hopes that more theatre, as challenging and bold as this, will grace the stage in the terms to come.