By Catherine Kirkham-Sandy
The old saying goes that hindsight is 20/20. In A Bright Room Called Day, this only makes the whole story more tragic. Knowing that these effervescent characters have another twelve years to endure before they can be completely safe from the threat of Nazism makes the relief of Agnes Eggling (Lucy Fourgs) and Annabella Gotchling (Valeria Di Pasquale) at the November 1932 election results painful in its dramatic irony.
Yet the play is still remarkably funny in places, with liberal helpings of black comedy. Freya Dawes and Hugh Pomeroy as comrades Rosa Malik and Emil Traum were particularly adept at this, with their punchy delivery in the dynamic of disagreement and mutual frustration. Not only that, both actors master their more poignant scenes at the end of the play, when Traum and Malik realise the full ramifications of their failure and Malik offers a tender helping hand to Agnes.
The action of the play takes place in Agnes’ sitting room; and the warm lighting, as well as the set design, gives the stage the feeling of a pressure cooker, perfect for the increasingly tense and menacing atmosphere of the play’s events. The five main characters of Agnes, Gotchling, Vealtninc Husz (Jacob Ashbridge), Paulinka Erdnuss (Katie Newbould) and Gregor Bazwald (Bryn Richards) are all well casted. As the noose of fascism tightens around the group, each actor steps up to the fore to bring pathos and believability to their characters’ actions and reactions. Evie Emslie’s costume design makes good use of details, such as the holes in Agnes’ tatty jumper, to create authenticity which adds to both the pathos and the horror of the play.
A few adaptational choices have been made. Tony Kushner’s play was first performed in 1994, and so the character of Zillah Katz railed against Ronald Reagan. Here, Zillah (Elle Hibbert) turns her ire on Donald Trump. This is a sound choice on the part of the production team, to update the story and go some way to redress a common criticism the play has faced, though the original’s polemic does occasionally peek through. Hibbert inhabits her role fully and her American accent is truly impeccable, and the more far-fetched moments do not detract at all from the solemnity of Zillah’s character at the end of the play.
Numerology and eschatology aside, the more supernatural elements of the play work very well indeed. Ellie Armstrong was excellent casting for the ominous, wraithlike figure known only as “Die Alte” in the cast list, nailing both the sinister and harrowing aspects of her character’s physicality and delivery. The sound design is nothing short of superb, especially for the motif of “Die Alte”, with the perfect balance of drum beats and violin chords. I had it stuck on a loop in my head for quite a while after. Caidraic Heffernan as “Herr Swetts” has to be seen to be believed. From his elegant, smooth accent to his snarling to his death rattle, the vocal range is magnificent. Special credit is due to Orla O’Hagan for the perfect contouring of Heffernan’s make-up, which adds to the character’s menacing charisma; and for the choice of dark lipstick for “Die Alte” which emphasises her desperate hunger. Nathan Billis as Lighting Designer is also especially to be commended, not only for the classic use of shadow and red lighting, but also the clever use of side lighting and back lighting at key moments throughout the play. The shrinking lighting at the end of the play is especially well done.
With a runtime of two hours and forty minutes, including an interval, this is a long play. It is also a loud one. There is a lot of shouting, for understandable reasons, so try to avoid the front row if you can. I made the mistake of sitting in the middle of the front row for the first act and had to migrate one row back after the interval for the sake of my ears. Don’t forget also to bring change, as there will be a collection at the end for the preservation of museums about the Holocaust.