Review by Melinda Haunton
I loved the idea of Crossing the Line. It could hardly be more timely to look at national borders, at the ways the divide people, and at how we value different people differently at the point where they move between two countries. We are promised a “choreography with words”, dozens of mini scenes showing different experiences in making that one step, across a border, taken from myriad film and TV, familiar and unknown. And it starts promisingly, with the large cast crisscrossing and dividing the Cockpit stage with chalk lines, redividing the space in ways which are arbitrary but undeniable. It creates a powerful visual message about the ways in which we divide ourselves, and are divided.
The Cockpit has broadened out its Voilà season of Anglo-French shows into a European experience, Voilà Europe, and Crossing the Line brings together appropriately polylingual performances. We’re promised English, French, German, Polish and Italian (I seem to have missed the last). The cast plays across gender, race, age and ability, and it’s all a promising mishmash of internationalism. I was rather fascinated by the assumptions about a London audience’s capacity with language (no surtitles here). We’re expected to be able to cope with French, to recognise stereotypical military German from too many war and spy films (“Schnell, schnell, raus!”), and to need full simultaneous translation of the Polish. Which is probably about right, and highly depressing if you analyse it.
Given that I *did* analyse it, during the play’s short run time, you might guess I wasn’t swept away. In the end, I wasn’t convinced Crossing the Line’s worthy intentions really came together. It may be partly that I didn’t recognise most of the quoted scenes, which robbed them of context and too often also of emotion. The jumble of cast playing different characters left too many people trying to cover a persona or an accent they couldn’t pull off (some especially British Americans the worst of it, but a constant thread). The play goes outside Europe occasionally – to Vietnam and the Rio Grande – which felt jarring, trying to cover too much world and skimming it all a bit thin.
There is potential here, and most of the cast had chances to shine when playing to their strengths. I felt some moments of real power and engagement. A stowaway hearing border guards approaching, crouched over his single light source, determined on death rather than capture. Two dignitaries being bowed obsequiously through a border, such a contrast to the overmighty-yet-petty officialdom that characterises so many international crossings in the piece. Great use of lighting to mimic the raking searchlights of a contested border. And, for light relief, a hilarious skit to Nikita, soul-sung and with the most unlikely sexy-comic melting of a Russian guard as the song progresses.
The last, though, segued into the somewhat inevitable scene at a German border in the 1930s, Nazi salutes and all. The audience giggles carried through too, wrecking what should be a sinister moment, even if it’s a scene we’re overfamiliar with. There’s not enough emotional whiplash in the playing to move between so many scenes so fast, and it doesn’t build to much of a climax. The audience, willing to applaud, pretty much had to be told when it was over – which suggests the choreography still needs a bit of work.