Neil Cooper

THE glass-fronted foyer of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh is piled high with well-worn suit-cases. Wils Wilson seems pleasantly surprised to see them as she briefly escapes from rehearsals for her production of Bridget Boland's little-known play, Cockpit, which opens at the Lyceum this weekend. With window ledges lined with vintage books beside her as Wilson makes her way up the stairs, it's as if the theatre has been taken over by occupying forces. Which, given that Wilson's production won't be confined to the stage, but will sprawl it's way across the theatre's auditorium, in a way, it has.

“It's not a play that anybody knows,” says Wilson of Cockpit. “It did well critically in the West End, but it didn't keep its audience, so it didn't run for terribly long, and since then, according to all our researches it hasn't ever been done again.”

Cockpit premiered in 1948, three years after the end of the Second World War. The play is set in a theatre in a still to be divided Germany, where the theatre's auditorium is being used as an assembly centre for displaced civilians across Europe who had been liberated from the camps in which they were confined. Wilson was introduced to the play by Lyceum artistic director David Greig. Greig had discovered it through fellow writer and academic, Dan Rebellato, who recognised the potential for an overdue revival.

“This production has come together primarily because of its subject matter,” says Wilson. “It's about displaced people, and forging Europe out of the chaos of the War. It's also about what the British understanding of mainland Europe is, and how that's partial, fractured and troublesome. With what's happening with Brexit and the refugee crisis as well at the moment, it just seems the right play to do right now.”

Wilson's production moves things way beyond Cockpit's West End roots in a way that takes full advantage of the play's setting.

“We can use the theatre as a theatre,” she says, “which is brilliant, as my background is working in spaces that aren't theatres, and in this instance the theatre is a site-specific space. We're using as much of the auditorium as we can. We've opened it all up. We're putting some of the audience onstage, and the audience are notionally the other displaced people, so hopefully they'll feel implicated and really in among the action.”

Wilson is no stranger to co-opting social spaces in different ways. Her collaboration with David Greig, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, reinvented border ballads for the twenty-first century in pubs and and bars across the world. She also oversaw Wind Resistance, Karine Polwart's personal musical reflection on flight and landscape. Refreshing a period piece like Cockpit is an equally gargantuan task.

“I think the challenge really is to make it feel as real as possible, so it feels that violence could blow up at any second,” says Wilson. “The rhythm of the play moves from moments of stillness to a blow up of tension, and then back to stillness, and so on, so it's just a case of making those moments really bite. I think that's how it will live or die, if you really feel that guns could be drawn at any moment.”

Cockpit's writer Bridget Boland is best known as a screen-writer, whose credits include a 1940 adaptation of Patrick Hamilton's play, Gaslight. She was also co-writer on the 1969 historical drama, Anne of the Thousand Days. Cockpit was Boland's second play, following a version of The Arabian Nights, also produced in 1948. Boland had produced plays during the War to boost morale of the troops while serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Half a dozen other stage plays followed Cockpit. The last of these, A Juan by Degrees, was produced in 1965, before the British-Irish daughter of politician John Pius Boland ended her writing carer in 1975 with the last of three novels, Caterina.

Cockpit may not have lasted on the West End, but in 1949 it was filmed by directors Bernard Knowles and Muriel Box as The Lost People. The film starred Richard Attenburgh, Mai Zetterling, Dennis Price and Siobhan McKenna. Another play by Boland, The Prisoner, was filmed in 1955, and saw Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins star in a story set in an un-named East European country, where Nazi tyranny had been replaced by Communist tyranny. As with Cockpit, The Prisoner subscribed to a recurring theme recognised by Boland in 1987, a year before her death, as being that “Belief is dangerous”.

“The script to Cockpit is quite filmic,” says Wilson. “There's a lot of atmosphere and a lot of action. It's not the kind of script where you're debating what a semi-colon means. That makes it a lot of fun to work on, because I think Bridget Boland wanted to make it as near to documentary onstage as you could get in 1948. It doesn't really look like a documentary, but it's much more like that than other things you would see at the time. It feels so modern. It feels like a really modern piece of writing.”

Given everything that has happened since Boland's play first appeared, as well as a warning against division, it is also a time capsule of what might have been.

“What we know now, the audience didn't know then,” says Wilson. “So when the communists in the play are saying, we'll take charge, we'll forge the new order, they didn't know the history between now and then and what's happened. So you've got to believe that's actually going to happen. You've got to believe that the future is a socialist, communist Europe, where the workers are in control. You've got to believe that's possible in that moment, because, why not? That's what they fought for. People have lines about how we've won, how this is their moment, and how this is their chance to make a new world, so it's interesting to have to try and forget what you know.

“We know now that we have had a period of relative peace, which is in danger, and that the status quo is in real jeopardy. I feel that we're at this moment where we feel Europe is being taken for granted, and we're wondering what's going to happen as it possibly fractures. Boland was at that moment of going, what's going to happen? Are we going to pull together and work together and have peace, or is there going to be more conflict?

“It was so unlikely that after this terrible war we did manage to make a European union, so it's very salutary to look back and remember what an achievement that was, and how people really had to fight to overcome their prejudices, and to remember that. Historians are always telling us to remember history to understand, and be wise. What if we're on a cycle towards something like that again?”

Key to Wilson's production will be a live music score that features folk songs from Poland and Romania. These have been fed into the mix by the large international cast which Wilson has gathered, and whose very presence working side by side is making a statement that sits alongside the play.

“That feels like an act of defiance in itself,” says Wilson.” Here we are, a cast from all over Europe, making a play together. We've tried to get a really European team to make a European play, to make sure that we're not looking at it from just one perspective, making assumptions or working with stereotypes. Just having people who do have a different understanding of Europe and its history, it keeps us honest.”

Cockpit, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, October 6-28.