The Shape of the Table by David Edgar

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BBC Radio 4, 14 November 2009
First staged at the Royal National Theatre in 1990, The Shape of the Table was revived to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the consequent destruction of the Iron Curtain.
Set in an unspecified central European state that bears a strong resemblance to the old Czechoslovakia, David Edgar's play focuses on the manifold strategies adopted by the existing government to remain in power, despite the fact that its days are numbered. There has been a political sea-change in the country; no one wants to accept the despotic word any more, and instead search for a new form of democracy. Writers and polemicists such as Prus (Tim McInnerny) are the symbols of that new spirit; having spent several years as political prisoners, they are now endowed with sufficient political clout to be able to make themselves heard.
The core of the play focuses on the negotiations between the government, headed by the Prime Minister (Jeremy Clyde), supported by unreconstructed communists like Lutz (Henry Goodman) and the pro-demoncracy forces represented by Prus and long-time rebel Victor Spassov (Michael Elwyn), At the beginning the government does not want to give an inch; but as the action progresses, they are forced into making more and more concessions to avoid a full-scale revolution. The negotations are anaylsed in minute detail, with the government forced to reword their documents in such a way as to save face while giving in to their rivals' demands. Eventually the Prime Minister realizes that there is no other course of action available for him except resignation; this signals the death of the old order and the onset of the new.
The Shape of the Table makes some sharp points about the negotiating process, where often it seems more appropriate to find the right wording rather than discuss any major issues in detail. Appearance is everything; so long as it seems that concessions have been made, then the people can be placated. Politics is a dirty business, no more so than when it is conducted by officials whose sole instinct inclines toward self-preservation rather than public duty.
Nonetheless, I had the distinct feeling that there is something quintessentially English about this play. Although set in Europe, the protagonists are immediately recognizable (the smarmy Prime Minister, the bluff, no-nonsense Lutz, a lifelong Party member who speaks with a northern accent). One could almost be listening to a series of negotiations between the government and the trade unions in the early 1970s, particularly when the Prime Minister gave in to the rebels' demands. Moreover the characters sometimes resemble mouthpieces to express the dramatist's political views - as a result, some of the scenes appear dramatically lifeless. I do not doubt Edgar's sincerity; but at times I wished he had written a better play.
Peter Leslie Wild's production was redeemed somewhat by notable peformances. Jeremy Clyde made a suitably smarmy Prime Minister, who eventually understood the futility of holding on to power. McInnerny's Prus was equally fixed in his convictions; so much so that we wondered whether he could actually offer a viable alternative to the Prime Minister's rule, once he had acceeded to power. As Lutz observed, the situation in 1989 was very reminiscent of 1945, when Lutz himself had been a young radical involved in establishing a new regime which also committed itself to democratic reform. Half-a-century later that innovative spirit had disappeared; the communists were now perceived as reactionary. One wondered whether the same fate might befall Prus, after he had been in power for a time.