Perhaps the main challenge when staging any play, even one written just twenty years ago, is how to make it speak to a contemporary audience. The team behind Ophir Productions’ rendition of David Edgar’s Pentecost didn’t have to look far in this respect. Written in 1994, and set just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the play focuses on a small church in ‘Our Country’: a fictional state in South-East Europe. After an Oxford art historian and a local museum curator discover a hidden fresco which appears to predate Giotto — the first of the great Renaissance painters — Edgar sets up a dialectic about the value and integrity of art. Yet what makes ‘Pentecost’ so startlingly pertinent is the arrival of a group of armed refugees who take the academics hostage, and demand to be granted asylum. One only has to skim a newspaper today to find news of the growing refugee crisis in Europe, and the unthinkable lengths many have gone to in order to flee the chaos of their home countries.
Maddy Walker plays Gabriella Pecs, the museum curator, with subtlety. She injects comedy into the role, but far from being a farce, her devotion to art and her selflessness give her character a depth which Walker’s acting more than stands up to. Dr. Davenport, the Oxford art historian played by Cassian Bilton, is an out-of-place Englishman, performed confidently, yet with no less nuance than Pecs. Though Davenport’s revelation of the pricelessness of the fresco is here a little underwhelming for the audience, given that he calls it “The greatest art find since the discovery of Pompeii”, this is only a momentary misjudgement in what is otherwise an extremely impressive performance.
This is a play whose focus constantly vacillates between high culture and a struggle for survival, and the production’s stark visual contrasts echo this. The imposing fresco, brilliantly researched by set designer Megan Thomas and her team, is thrown into sharp relief by the crumbling church walls which surround it. Christian Bevan’s lascivious Mikhail Czaba and the wonderfully sarcastic Leo Katz, played assuredly by Calam Lynch, both introduce a note of corruption into the home of this utopian fresco and the idealism of Pecs.
The lighting is similarly effective: the whole church, including the fresco, is brightly lit in the first half. However, as the play goes on the fresco is masked, first by paper, and then by the darkness into which the cast are plunged. It is in those darker moments where Edgar’s optimism becomes clearest. It is no coincidence that hope shines most brightly when the stage is in utter darkness. In the most emotionally tender moments of the play, the refugees and their hostages unite around art: not the priceless fresco, but around music and stories of their own. Anna Jedlikova, played by Ell Potter, is poised and erudite, while embodying a profound sense of hopelessness; comic yet subtle cameos unite the cast in a touching scene.
And yet this sense of community is fleeting. Edgar denies the audience any sense of comfort, holding both hope and nihilism in continuous tension by constantly jolting the play in new directions. The bureaucratic governmental rhetoric — which strays uncannily close to that of the current Conservative government — is shown to be hollow, and the state’s conclusions arbitrary in light of the desperation of this group of refugees. When Leo Katz proclaims his inability to act, saying “I’m not the European community”, the sentiment jars. Edgar is clear: no one in the room can absolve themselves of responsibility in this crisis.
Pentecost is unsettlingly ambiguous in its conclusions, and it is this ambiguity, this plurality, which Ophir Productions have captured so convincingly. Far from being a simple call to accept refugees, Edgar’s play interrogates its own medium, questioning the price of art when it comes up against something even more precious: human life. But, impressive though it is, it is not the fresco which occupies one’s mind at the close of the play. The audience does not leave asking, ‘can we value art more than life?’, but ‘can we value one life more than another?’
‘Pentecost’ runs at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 7th November; for more information or to book tickets please visit their website.