Writer David Pinner is best known for his novel Ritual on which the cult film The Wicker Man was based. Surprisingly, even with this credit to his name he doesn't have a Wikipedia entry, which may give some clue as to the dust that has collected on The Potsdam Quartet in the thirty years since its last professional production, and which hasn't quite been blown clear by this revival.
The quartet of the title isn't a reference to the mid-twentieth century power dynamic; to the five representative of the Big Three (the Soviet Union, the United State and Great Britain), Stalin, Churchill, Truman, Roosevelt and Attlee – who met at Potsdam in the Autumn of 1945 to consider the postwar future of Europe. It refers to the chamber quartet, based loosely on the real Griller Quartet, who played for the Allied leaders at the conference. The action is based exclusively in the cramped anteroom where the musicians wait and squabble between performances, watched over by a young taciturn Russian soldier with a machine gun (Ged Petkunas, impressive in his limited role). He's an effective symbol for the coercive power of the Russian army, which by this point occupied half of Europe, without any intention to withdraw.
The musicians, none younger than forty, who have been touring throughout the war as part of the army's entertainment service are worn out, bored, hungry and intermittently at one another throats. Healy (Philip Bednarczyk) is bitter that he has been rejected by his lover in the group, Bird (Ronald Taylor), and is threatening to ruin the quartet by revealing publicly the couple's sexuality. The highly-strung Bird has himself a history of suicide attempts, while the affable Swift (Daniel Crowder) has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, but is yet to reveal the news to the others. Only quartet leader Green (Michael Matus) seems to want the group to stay together, but his colleagues are fed up of his relentless hectoring.
Pinner's script includes several funny lines. "Stalin's moustache has stared right through him", complains one of the musicians, and acute quirky observations, as when under the baffled gaze of their guard, the musicians in turn begin knitting and criticising each other's efforts. Somewhat less assured are moments aimed at establishing the hinterland of their shared history. Though the group finish one another's dreadful jokes and share between them past stories, Pinner's desire to inject a political dimension leads to moments of lengthy exposition and grandstanding that rarely feels authentic.
In fact the script is full of strange lurches as characters make apparently provocative statements only for the action to immediately withdraw from any conflict, in what feels like a somewhat hamfisted effort to maintain tension. After a promising first act, the second act circles the issues raised without coming to very many conclusions. The gun the Russian soldiers carries never goes off: though the bickering, unease and sense of threat may make for a reasonable analogy for the cold war, it's not very dramatically satisfying. In fact the tone isn't even all that threatening (the line quoted most dwelt on is that of Churchill's exhausted confession that "he just wanted Stalin to like him" - it's more an expression of failure than fear, and probably tells us more about the 1970s than the 1940s). Instead I was reminded of Larkin's recessional "Homage to a Government", written at much the same time as Pinner's play, which meets the end of empire with mildly bitter, colloquial resignation "Next year we are to bring the soldiers home / for lack of money, and that is all right".
Ultimately the overt political subtext and the contrast with the musicians' privilege to "create parabolas of love" through their recitals (the transcendence of art, et al), though appealing as a theme, is rather undermined by a script that denies both direct interractions with these representatives of the Big Three (the Soviet Union, the United State and Great Britain), and any moments in which we see the musicians perform (barring a little piano thumping).
Without the music, and with the political context more gestured at than realised, there emerges a play mostly concerned with the drudgery of work; with colleagues bound to one another by business that has long since lost much sense of excitement.
Though all the cast have fine moments (particularly the sympathetic Michael Matus), some beats were missed in the performance I saw, and alongside some quite static direction there's a sense that this production is still finding its feet. Even once the cast reach their zenith, however, I'm unconvinced they will be able to prevent this work from disappearing from the stage for another 30 years once the run ends.