Principal Parts by Henry David – review

Published in Edfringereview

Churchill famously liked to think of Europe east of the Danube as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Strip Theatre’s latest production Principal Parts (C Venues, C Soco), set in that most enigmatic of Eastern Europe’s cities, Sarajevo, is a tragedy wrapped in a farce inside a world music concert. The story of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination has been rehearsed in every history classroom, but it takes playwright Henry David’s Stoppard-esque dramatic disposition to conjure out of history a story that enchanted the audience one and all.

Principal Parts is framed as narrator Professor Mehmed Basic’s theatrical attempt to understand the stories behind his and his collaborators’ erstwhile participation in the violent conspiracy that triggered a world war. But this play turns out to be about a motley crew of lovelorn thespians-cum-political-radicals rehearsing a play about an assassination. Thrown in to this mystifyingly meta mix is a love quadrilateral on which depends – one likes to think – the fate of the world; love and politics more fatefully intertwined than in Doctor Zhivago, but with a whole lot more rip-roaring laughs.

At least I think it might be a love quadrilateral, although a two-dimensional shape hardly does it justice; perhaps a dodecahedron? The eponymous Princip, whose dissonant combination of naïveté and wisdom Ivan Juritz captures so well, is enamoured of Alice Allemano’s sensuously seductive waitress Ana, whom lead conspirator Dano Ilic is eyeing up for marriage. Meanwhile, their co-conspirator Vaso rather fancies Ana too but is insanely infatuated by Dano’s even insaner mother, Nina, a schoolteacher in the habit of seducing her pupils, including Professor Basic’s younger self. Basic happens also to be the object of Ned’s affections, the most ardent Serbian nationalist of them all, a prickly and misogynistic homosexual, a performance actor Nick Stafford hilariously ensnares in a slithery spirit of reptilian camp.

The Arthur Schnitzler-style merry-go-round of erotic collusions is not the only way David catches the Austro-Hungarian fin-de-siècle, neither his delightfully and disarmingly bawdy jokes reminiscent of the period’s classic German pornographic tracts. Bosnia’s unique heritage of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian worlds collide in Schiller’s coffeehouse (itself a perfect symbol of both), where patrons’ favourites include the wiener schnitzel as well as baklava, accompanied by Beth Hipwell’s beguiling Balkan original score, whose continental cacophony is grounded by an oriental tabla.

But behind all the entertainment lies a serious kernel smuggled in amid all the wit and wordplay; the conspirators’ bumbling, fumbling incompetences mask the evil face of nationalisms past (and present?), whose utopian intentions cause, as Ana bears witness, untold damage. Is this a comic answer to the question – whether political violence is ever justified – posed by Camus in his play Les Justes? Princip eventually answers no, and prioritises love over principle, but in an unexpected twist this counts for nothing. Princip and Ana’s first kiss is oddly touching, but not for too long, and the comic merry-go-round starts spinning again, briefly, until it unravels to a satisfying stop, some time in 1934, not too far from another tragedy.

Marx assertion in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon is that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Henry David’s meta-theatrical triumph does both in one go.

Greatest Cantabrigians: Jawaharlal Nehru

Published in Varsity, November 2009

Not only did Jawaharlal Nehru achieve one of the highest ever firsts in Cambridge’s NatSci tripos, but he also defeated the British Empire. Gandhi’s protégé and de facto leader of the Indian independence movement, he spent over a decade in British jails fighting for freedom for his 300 million countrymen. Elected the first and longest-serving Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy, he set the impoverished nation he inherited onto its path to prosperity and became a key figure in post-war international politics. A hero to millions, this Cantabrigian is undoubtedly one of the towering figures of world history.