David Greig’s Europe at the Leeds Playhouse

David Greig’s Europe was first performed in 1994, after the Soviet Union had collapsed and borders had opened up. But it was also a period of great hardship: there were the Balkan Wars; people had been displaced; and economies had foundered. Though the play, set in a station on the borders between two central European countries, reflects all these historical circumstances, it has much resonance for our own times, with the ubiquitous problem of refugees and travellers seeking better prospects and its political consequences  not the least Brexit.

At the heart of the piece lies the fundamental question how individuals relate to locations – their own and those on the “other side” – and the lifestyles which go with them. Some of the characters in the play see opportunities in travel, not only as an escape from an oppressive or deprived existence at home, but also for gainful trade or as a fulfilment for their romantic imagination. Others, perhaps the majority, wedded to what is familiar, feel threatened by encounters with foreigners and things foreign.

These ideas are played out through dramatic, sometimes hostile and violent, sometimes relaxedly comic, confrontations between the different perspectives. The language, fuelled often by alcohol, is colourful, in places crude, in places poetic; and throughout there is the poignancy of thwarted self-realisation which communicates itself so well to the audience. Perhaps the text is occasionally too explicit, in the sense that there is too much spelling-out of what could have emerged more tellingly through events and imagery; and some of the characters tend towards becoming two-dimensional spokesmen of attitudes rather than fully-rounded human beings.

The Leeds Playhouse revival of the piece is nevertheless first-rate. James Brining’s production, in Amanda Stoodley’s appropriately depressing set of dilapidated walls and windows, captures well the bleakness of individual lives. There is a fine structure and pace to the drama as it builds towards its gripping climax and a team of strong actors are unflinching in communicating the harshness of the world which supplies them with so little.

A pity that there was not a larger audience in the temporary but quite spacious” pop-up” theatre to experience all this. Perhaps it should have been given in a more intimate venue.