Passion, separation, betrayal: ‘Cold War’ has all the classic ingredients of a West End romantic epic.
Image credit: Marc Brenner
When the strikingly beautiful Zula (Anya Chalotra) enters a decrepit local church hall to audition for a state-sponsored folk music ensemble, Wiktor (Luke Thallon), the group’s director and composer, can’t help but turn his head -- as any good star-crossed romance should begin.
Cold War, Conor McPherson’s highly anticipated new play on offer at the Almeida Theatre, is an emotive and captivating leap from the big screen to the stage. Set behind the Iron Curtain in Communist Poland, ‘Cold War’ follows the love story of Zula and Wiktor, a singer and a composer, who look to lift themselves out of poverty the only way they both know how: through music.
During the course of rehearsals, Wiktor begins to feel stifled by the government’s new restrictions on artistry; meant to develop a proletarian style based on traditional Polish folk music. Despite Wiktor’s reservations, Cold War's soundtrack is the stand-out take away from the production. Through consultation with the Warsaw Village Band, the play includes an array of contemporary adaptations of Polish folk tunes, each as mesmerising and arresting as the next. In one particularly delightful song and dance number, the choreography, lighting and sound transmorph midway into a jazzy, lighter jaunt: Wiktor has now entered western Europe.
In an attempt to leave Communist oppression behind him, Wiktor defects to Paris, leaving a reluctant Zula behind. This is the first separation–and the first betrayal–the couple must face. Plagued by old lovers, new lovers, alcoholism and trauma, Zula and Wiktor love and struggle across Europe. In a patchwork of both mirroring and opposing desires and ideals– passion fighting with function, the individual fighting with the collective, West fighting with East– this play is in many ways a triumphant display of love in a time of hate.
With a soundtrack made for the West End, Cold War’s characters can also sometimes fall within the narrative troupes of pop-y but beloved hits. It’s easy to draw parallels between Cold War and long-running productions like Miss Saigon: flawed, womanising men like Wiktor are captivated by a girl, like Zula, who is more naive, more down-to-earth than all the rest. Their romance is doomed by war raging around them, but the couple are prepared to wait years on the fraught hope of reunion.
Despite a very well-trodden narrative, Cold War captures the heart and mind. In the second half, quieter, more poignant moments in the play captivated the audience with a tension that was palpable. Sniffles could be heard as the figurative curtains closed. A sure-fire hit with most friends and family, ticket-goers can’t really go wrong with McPherson’s Cold War.