Written by Alice Kane
As part of Durham Drama Festival 2022, Bailey Theatre Company proudly showcased ‘The Children of Yesterday’ at Mount Oswald Hub.
Enzo Lebeau (Writer/Director) is correct in his description of ‘The Children of Yesterday’ as a ‘fast-paced patchwork’ of twentieth century Europe. The play followed the lives of Maria Montessori, who was an educator that pioneered the ‘Montessori method’ of teaching, and Stefan Zweig a novelist and an idealist dedicated to a united Europe. We watched both characters ‘striving for something greater’, observing how they dealt with both personal and political obstacles. While this play covered well over 60 years, it felt as though the audience joined and left the play in media res. On thrust staging, we were offered Europe in all its turmoil and glory through a cleverly produced ensemble play.
The trajectory of the story was gratifying, and could be appreciated for its complexity by the end; however this play demanded full concentration. More obvious parallels between the stories were needed as the naturalistic style of acting while mirroring two characters development was very ambitious. At certain points, this approach left the audience to decide to feel the emotion rather than giving them no choice. As an audience member, I had to decide to invest myself and to see the subtle parallels. However, the discussion between all the characters in the last scene gave the audience no choice but to invest themselves. The natural dialogue made for easy viewing that showed the quiet passion of these two lives that Lebeau was trying to portray. The use of stills throughout granted us the pleasure of more emotional depth which was sometimes lost in the breadth of this script. The nostalgic use of music in conjunction with lighting choices added greatly to the overall production of this play.
Charlotte Beech’s use of lighting tailing off and dimming as a character delved into their own subconscious and then suddenly returning into more practical and political plotlines was repeatedly effective and extremely slick.
The intermingling of political and personal was effective. It felt reflective of the quiet chaos that the last 2 years has brought us. The script and delivery excelled in capturing the contemporary feeling of particular cities. The ‘Vienna of Yesterday’ speech was a highlight, where the audience felt what had been lost. Similarly, in Maria’s speech about the founding of Italy, the audience were behind her and felt the vivid sentiment of ‘a world of security…decaying’, as well as the excitement shown in the fast pace of the play. This pace portrayed the increasing fluidity of the borders of Europe at this time; you could feel the characters geographies expanding.
Maria Montessori embodied the so-called New Woman of the fin de siècle in the themes Lebeau provided, discussing education and sex work; and in the graceful protestations of Daisy Summerfield.
But, possibly choosing a singular point in their lives to mirror would have enabled the depth these figures deserved, and the audience wanted.
I must commend Jack Paul’s masterful portrayal of multiple ensemble roles. He adopted notable idiosyncrasies that helped guide the audience, and his subtle changes in accent and voice were impressive. Nathan Jarvis must also be commended especially in his portrayal as Maria’s son. His speech after her death was incredibly moving but not forced. The deliverance of the line ‘I live by your life mama’ was stunning and a testament to this lost generation was held within it. Finally, to applaud the skill of the ensemble working together in what was undoubtedly a complicated script to explore.
‘The Children of Yesterday’ captured Europe as it was, a transitional period at the mercy of a few enthusiastic people. While personal elements of the characters were underdeveloped at times, the audience was left feeling privileged to have been illuminated on two such wonderful lives.
Lebeau is correct, that the play would provide a simple spark of light amongst darkness.