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David Edgar interview: The Iron Curtain Trilogy and lessons for today

Playwright David Edgar spoke to Judith Orr about the trilogy of plays he wrote after the 1989 revolutions—which are currently being revived in London

Issue No. 2428

The Burning Coal company performing the Iron Curtain Trilogy

The Burning Coal company performing the Iron Curtain Trilogy (Pic: Burning Coal Theatre Company)

“The Eastern European uprising in 1989 was thrilling and inspiring. Yet it was also alarming, in terms of one’s fears about the final outcome. 

I’ve never been a Marxist who’s followed of the Communist Party. But I thought it was important for the left to look at what was happening. It was important for us not assume that the ‘Soviet experiment’ going so catastrophically wrong was nothing to do with us. 

I wrote the first of the three plays, The Shape of the Table, which premiered one day before the first anniversary of the actual fall of the Berlin Wall.

It was about the takeover of power in an Eastern European country that was based on different real ones. 

It was closest to Czechoslovakia, but it included bits of all the revolutions. That play was put on elsewhere, including Romania two years after the fall of the Wall. 

I’d been to Eastern Europe in the 1980s, and continued going back. I went to Prague and what was just about still Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and was aware of things that were taking place. 

I was aware of the ethnic divisions in Yugoslavia. In the first play there are also references to the resurgence of antisemitism and attacks on Roma people. 

When I was in Prague, I asked people what they were most frightened of. I thought they’d say the imminent price rises or losing our flat to someone whose grandparents owned it before the Second World War.

Instead, the great fear was seven million Russians moving west. That of course led to Fortress Europe and the whole asylum seeker scandal. 

The next play, Pentecost, was about the imaginary discovery of a fresco that suggested the Italian Renaissance’s gains might have happened further east. 

A group of asylum seekers looking for sanctuary takes over the church in which the play is set.  


It becomes about what is European-ness—and who’s got it and who’s excluded from it. 

I got interested in how the peace processes were beginning to work in South Africa and Northern Ireland.

When I started writing I was fairly positive, but I stopped for a period because of a bereavement. But when I came back to it, the peace process had failed in Palestine and stalled in Northern Ireland. 

The Bosnian war had ended, but only after terrible slaughter and the Kosovo conflict was breaking out. 

The play really became about how the peacemakers and resolving conflicts had become very much an industry. I’m not knocking it—they did a great deal of good—but I think peacemakers tend not to realise that they too have an agenda. 

It isn’t necessarily a totally cynical one. But we’ve seen in liberal military interventions that there’s an element of conflict resolution that’s about people pursuing their own countries’ interests. 

The plays weren’t conceived as a trilogy at all. But then North Carolina company Burning Coal did Pentecost, which I went to see after finding out about it by googling my name.  

They have brought back the two other plays during the last five years and said they’d like to do bring them all back for the 25th anniversary— and bring them to London. 

Much to my surprise, they managed to do both. 

I think it’s an interesting time because of Ukraine. I think Ukraine and Russia are the countries which had the most dramatic downsides.

I’m absolutely support the 1989 revolutions and think they made the world a better place. But I think the ‘shock therapy’ economics imposed by the US and the World Bank led to impoverishment.

This led to the ‘colour revolution’ in the 2000s against corrupt politicians. But they led to other corrupt governments taking over.

It’s the consequences of that process that we’re seeing today.” 

The Iron Curtain Trilogy by David Edgar. The Cockpit Theatre, London NW8 8EH. Until 30 November

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Tue 4 Nov 2014, 17:44 GMT
Issue No. 2428
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