Iron Curtain Trilogy Explores Political and Cultural Tensions in Post-Communist Europe

October 17, 2014

Throughout the month of September, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Raleigh-based Burning Coal Theatre Company presented the Iron Curtain Trilogy—three plays by contemporary British playwright David Edgar that deal with politics in post-communist Eastern Europe.

The series ran in repertoire for the first time at 117 S. West Street, Raleigh, North Carolina. Audiences could see all three plays—The Shape of the Table, Pentecost and The Prisoner’s Dilemma—over the course of a weekend and view a piece of the Berlin Wall on display in the back of the theater.

Pentecost, the second play in the series, is set in an unnamed southeastern European country shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The play tells the story of Gabriella Pecs, an Eastern European art curator, who discovers what she believes is a Renaissance style fresco on the wall of a building variously used as church, mosque, stable, prison and communist museum throughout its history.

As Pecs and British art historian Oliver Davenport work to uncover the painting, they come in contact with a host of characters speaking different languages, including a Catholic priest, a Kurdish refugee and a Jewish American art historian. These characters represent the array of voices struggling to assert themselves in the newly formed Eastern European nations — and the confusion and anxiety caused by these competing voices.

The actors gave impassioned performances portraying the political, religious and cultural tensions that characterized Eastern European society after the fall of communism. The venue was intimate and the costumes and set design were simple, allowing the audience to become immersed in the characters’ personal and public struggles to navigate their new society.

The play raised important questions about the region’s relationship to the West, the idea of Western exceptionalism and the place of the past in the present. Like the other two plays in the series, Pentecost continually returned to the question of whether Eastern European nations should embrace or ignore their communist history in forming their new national identities.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for European Studies, in collaboration with the Burning Coal Theatre Company and the Wake County Public Schools system, offered 50-minute lobby lectures prior to certain performances.

The lobby lecture for Pentecost, titled “Listening to the Place,” was given by Andrea F. Bohlman, an assistant professor in the UNC Department of Music. The lecture focused on the tie between art— specifically music—and politics. Bohlman described the importance of art in defining personal and national identity in Eastern Europe before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, explaining how art can reflect the political atmosphere of the time. The lobby lectures for The Shape of the Table and The Prisoner’s Dilemma were given by Karen Auerbach, assistant professor in the UNC Department of History, and Robert Jenkins, director of the UNC Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies, respectively.

As part of their collaborative effort with the Burning Coal Theatre Company and the Wake Forest Public Schools system, CES put together an interactive website where students can learn more about the plays, the history of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War and contemporary Eastern European politics.