Simon Stone’s poignant retelling of “The Good Hope”
GIVING AN OLD play a modern setting is nothing new, but over the past decade Simon Stone, an Australian writer and director, has developed a particular knack for it. Mr Stone takes classics from the Western canon (such as Euripides’s “Medea” or Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck”), allows his actors to improvise dialogue in rehearsals, cuts and adds characters and reworks scenes or entire plots to arrive at a new version that retains the bones of the original.
His latest project, “Flight 49”, is based on a theatrical classic not from Greece or Scandinavia but from the Netherlands: “The Good Hope”, written in 1900-01 by Herman Heijermans. The play is a working-class tragedy, depicting a fishing village’s reaction to the foundering of a poorly maintained boat with its men on board. In “Flight 49” the setting is updated to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, where a group of strangers waiting in the arrivals lounge for their loved ones to return from Morocco watch as the plane drops off the radar.
In a country whose greatest recent national tragedy was the shooting-down of Flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, which killed 193 Dutch passengers and 105 others, this scenario has immediate power. Indeed, it risks seeming like a gimmick to gin up unearned emotion. But in the hands of Mr Stone and the actors of the International Theatre Amsterdam, it is anything but cheap. “Flight 49” feels of the moment: the dialogue has the bickering absurdity of the age of social media, while the plot takes in multicultural frictions, corporate malfeasance and tensions between baby-boomers and millennials. Under the surface lie the same questions of fate, mortality and attachment that have underpinned tragedy since Euripides.
One thing “Flight 49” does well, at first, is lighten the mood. It opens with an argument between Christina (Chris Nietvelt), an ageing microbiologist who wants to borrow a phone charger, and Sami (Achraf Koutet), a Moroccan-Dutch youth who does not want to lend it to her. Only gradually does it become clear why Christina is so insistent—everyone in the arrivals area is desperately messaging their loved ones, hoping for a response. Christina’s son is on the plane, and she has come to the airport with Jo (Maria Kraakman), the son’s pregnant girlfriend. Piet (Hugo Koolschijn), an elderly lawyer, is there to meet his husband, whom he is divorcing. Another couple are expecting their daughter and infant granddaughter; they had boarded on stand-by and are not on the passenger list, leading to furious arguments with airline staff who refuse to provide information.
The sole character not texting is Kevin (Maarten Heijmans), a university student, who is busy staring at an app that provides flight-control data and reading it out loud at breakneck speed. Kevin, whose flatmates are on the plane, is extremely online, socially inept and touchingly incapable of deception, and is thus the only source of reliable information for the rest of the party. He is soon muzzled by Chloe (Ilke Paddenburg), a crisis manager brought in by the airline to prevent panic—that is, to lie and obfuscate until the company can work out how to control the narrative.
This is the meat of the play: conflicts between responsibility and honesty, between optimistic self-deception and the merciless progress of events. The audience already knows what has happened to the plane, and the characters do too, but they manage to pretend not to for as long as possible. Videos of a crash that appear online merely add to the fog—could they be old clips reposted by trolls? Only when mainstream media display footage from government search-and-rescue efforts, and Chloe confirms them, does the truth settle in.
“Flight 49” is good on grief and how individuals bargain with it. Christina and Jo wrestle over Daniel’s memory. The agnostic Sami, who loses his more religious father and brother, becomes a mosque-goer in a hopeless bid for approval from the dead. But the play makes some mistakes as it reaches the final act. The comic interludes that leaven the tragedy grow too sparse; there are too many angry revelations. (This may be a risk of co-authoring with actors, who have a natural fondness for epiphanies and showdowns.) What seem to be two characters played by one actor turn out to be the same character in different contexts, which is clever but relies on an implausible coincidence. And the corporate negligence plotline feels pat.
Curiously, “The Good Hope” was also criticised for a lack of business realism: no Dutch fishing-boat owner, one critic wrote at the time, would risk his biggest investment by sending it to sea in poor condition. In “Flight 49” the motivation is less far-fetched. Airlines’ desire to save fuel played a role both in recent crashes of 737 Max aircraft and in the shooting-down of MH17, which might otherwise have flown around the war zone. In any case, the play depicts capitalism less as an evil conspiracy than as a manifestation of fate. Like Agamemnon, the CEO is a tyrant trapped by the weight of his power; he may not have a thousand ships becalmed, but his 40,000 employees are on the verge of losing their jobs. It is the inevitability of his decision, and of all that follows, that gives the play its tragic strength. The characters are in the airport praying for a flight to reappear on the arrivals board, but they might as well be on the beach at Aulis, praying for a breath of wind.
“Flight 49” continues at the International Theatre, Amsterdam, until February 28th
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/09/30/simon-stones-poignant-retelling-of-the-good-hope
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