St Leonard’s church in Shoreditch makes an atmospheric setting for this patchy production of David Edgar’s brilliant play. Set in an unnamed Eastern European country and concerning an argument over the meaning and dating of a medieval fresco, Pentecost weaves together a tight web of cross-cutting themes, pitching nationhood and economics against the finer points of art history. It is a fascinating and at times startling play which the director, Gavin McAlinden, only intermittently manages to make sense of.
The newly discovered fresco, which Gabriella Pecs, a local art historian, suspects predates Giotto by a hundred years, dominates Vicki Fifield’s set. It is gradually revealed as layers of paint and bricks are removed. As Pecs attempts to persuade two western academics, the biddable Oliver Davenport and the incredulous Leo Katz, to support the radical theory that could make her name, the painting literally looms over the conversation, the silent subject upon which all of their hopes, in varying forms, depend.
The large canvasses used to represent each stage of the fresco’s restoration are carried down the aisle as if they are holy artifacts, adding a pleasing rhythm and sense of ritual to proceedings which nicely underlines the episodic form of the play - of time, relationships and arguments shifting between scenes.
The first half, which centres on Pecs and Davenport’s plan to remove the fresco from the small church in which it has survived for the last 500 years to the ‘safety’ of a museum and Katz’s attempts to thwart them, is pacey and entertaining. Pinar Ogun’s Pecs is impassioned but not without humour and makes very clear the hypocrisy of the western art world in claiming artworks for itself. Although she needs the two men, they are a constant irritation to her and this production does a good job of maintaining the tension between her reliance on them and her antagonism towards them.
Ben Warwick, too, portrays the outrage of Katz’s quick-witted academic with a likeable panache, holding our attention as he argues to undermine the strength of his rivals’ theory.
The second half, however, runs into problems as the themes widen from the politics of the art world to cover the significance of national borders and the arbitrary way in which nationality is determined. The momentum with which the production begins dissipates as frantic asylum seekers storm the church and take the three academics hostage. As Pecs et al. find themselves unexpectedly relying on each other for survival, they are pulled in competing directions; united in their desire to save the fresco, they veer from desperately protecting the painting to betraying it to save themselves.
Both McAlinden and the actors seem to struggle with this sudden expansion of themes and cast. The captors vastly outnumber their hostages in the large space at Shoreditch and as they each give voice to their sad histories and their hopes for the future, their hostages are strangely unengaged; despite the roll call of horrors given by their captors, they appear nothing more than three bystanders in the strange ensemble that surrounds them.
The result is that their captors’ attempts to entertainment themselves in the midst of their misery, which should be an emblem of warmth and humanity, become superfluous and strangely jarring. As the actors struggle to maintain the pace of this forced joviality, it becomes clear McAlinden hasn’t managed to hold the broadening themes together sufficiently to serve both Edgar’s exploration of nationhood and human nature and the onward thrust of the plot.
The writing, of course, is brilliant; the dialogue is both complex and funny, weaving a complex web of western chauvinism with the unpredictable vagaries of eastern governments’ alternating support and vilification of art. Both systems are shown to be obsessed with the commodification of the art work, Edward Akrout’s pragmatic Minister coming and going from proceedings like a bee to honey. The stateless team of asylum seekers finally take this commercial view to its extreme, trading their future lives against the survival or threatened destruction of the fresco.
Although the chaos of the final scenes is intended to be full of threat and uncertainty, the space is not harnessed sufficiently well to enable the fear and political punches to really strike home. The almost sacrificial death of one of the academics, redeeming an earlier betrayal, as well as the warmth and desperation of the asylum seekers, is allowed to disappear beneath the opaque blanket of the general action, which variously takes place from the balcony and from the back of the aisle as well as on the large main performance space. The cacophony of unfocused action this engenders creates a gulf between the meaning of the exceptional dialogue and its imperfect portrayal, which finally becomes a little too wide to ignore.