David Edgar’s political drama The Shape of the Table, set in an unnamed eastern European country during the collapse of the Soviet Union, first premiered at the National Theatre on November 8th, 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now, during one of the most fraught periods in Russian-Western relations since, Edgar’s play is enjoying a revival by North Carolina’s Burning Coal Theatre Company, now playing at the Cockpit in Marylebone.
Edgar’s play is all about political instability: how yesterday’s revolutionaries can become today’s corrupt establishment and vice versa. It is a play in which the political tables are, quite literally, turning endlessly. We open with the dissident pro-western intellectual Pavel Prust in prison, summoned by the regime to ostensibly pardon him. But Prust understands that this pardon will function as a compromise to placate a populace in revolt, and refuses to sign, knowing that soon enough the shoe will be on the other foot anyway. We watch as throughout the play his incarcerators slowly lose that power which kept Prust and the revolution he has come to symbolise in check, and Prust and his allies gain it.
I think one of the great strengths of Edgar’s play is its honesty, offering us no purely good or bad characters, and never suggesting a simple solution to the problems faced in Eastern Europe. And regardless of whether Eastern Europe will be better off after the dissolution of Communism or not, we are left under no illusion that this process is somehow a great emancipation for the people: one master is effectively being changed for another. As one character puts it: “I wonder if ‘out there’ they’ve really grasped what’s going on. If they realise that they’re exchanging the Red Flag for the pop song. Pravda for Playboy. The hammer and the sickle for the strip-joint, cola tin and burger-bar. To have expelled the Germans and the Russians just to hand the whole thing over to — America.”
This particular production is by no means perfect, and it didn’t quite seem to speak to our present political climate as one might have hoped from a play about eastern European politics. Perhaps Edgar’s script doesn’t make this so easy, but something about this production makes it feel too historical for my liking. A few of the more minor characters seem to lack depth as well, and not all of the scenes are acted as convincingly as one might like.
Nevertheless, this production does a good job in grappling with the fundamental political truths which lie at the heart of Edgar’s script, which is the most important thing. A play which lingers in the mind of its audience has always achieved success of a kind, and The Shape of the Table certainly did that. The play finishes on what must have seemed in 1990 to be the cusp of history: both looking back at the inevitability of Communism’s fall, and forward to the great uncertainty which lay ahead for eastern Europe. Now, of course, that uncertainty is still unfolding, and for anyone interested in these current affairs, Edgar’s play is still certainly worth a watch.
The Iron Curtain Trilogy plays at the Cockpit Theatre until November 30th