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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama


The Shape of the Table

David Edgar

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To purchase The Shape of the Table

Title: The Shape of the Table
Author: David Edgar
Genre: Drama
Written: 1990
Length: 83 pages
Availability: The Shape of the Table - US
The Shape of the Table - UK
  • First staged at the National Theatre, 8 November 1990, in a production directed by Jenny Killick

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Our Assessment:

B : solid portrait of a post-Soviet transition

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 23/11/1990 Andrew Bergsman

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The complete review's Review:

       David Edgar's play -- which had its premiere on 8 November 1990, the first anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall -- describes the transition of an unnamed Eastern European Soviet satellite state from totalitarian rule towards democracy. The country could be almost any of the former Warsaw Pact nations, as the issues (and the speed of events overtaking most efforts by the old regimes to maintain power) were, in many respects, very similar.
       The title, The Shape of the Table, refers to the discussions between the Americans and the Vietnamese during the Vietnam war, as the delegations spent months literally discussing the shape of the negotiating table (and where who would sit). As the Prime Minister of the collapsing regime notes, however: "I think we can agree we haven't got that long."
       The play is set in "the Banqueting Hall of a baroque palace in an Eastern European country, now used as a meeting room by the Communist government", and the six scenes cover a bit more than a month (in late 1989). Throughout there are a variety of negotiations, but power shifts inexorably, changing (as it were) the shape of the table and the relative positions of those who meet in the room. In the beginning it is Pavel Prus, a jailed dissident intellectual, who is brought to the room to sign a paper asking for a pardon from the regime, a compromise he refuses to accept (perhaps out of principle, but certainly also because he understands how very quickly the tide is turning); at the end it is the first secretary of the Communist Party who is asked to sign a piece of paper, again an effort to gloss over facts and avoid actually confronting the truth.
       From small to ever larger popular uprisings, to a complete change of government, events unfold quickly outside. Some of the upheavals are directly felt in the room -- power cuts, for example, leaving it in darkness, or "the hubbub of a large crowd". But the real difference is in how the leaders (of the regime, of the old and new oppositions, etc.) treat each other from scene to scene.
       The reactions vary. At first, the regime's only thought is of how to suppress the uprisings (among the possibilities: "the Tiananmen Alternative"), while later it all comes down to negotiating exactly how much power can be held onto (ever less), how the new government should look, and how the old regime should suffer for its years of misrule (as a leader of the once important and now almost forgotten Peasants' Party points out to the outgoing Communists: "Your party is committed to what our party was committed to in 1948. That's saving its own skin.").
       Among the surprise players is the man who led this country's equivalent of the Prague spring -- "the bourgeois restorationist V. Spassov", as he introduces himself.
       All is not rosy in this complete abandonment of the current failed system. As one person states (a bit too simply):

I wonder if 'out there' they've really grasped what's going on. If they realise that they're exchanging the Red Flag for the pop song. Pravda for Playboy. The hammer and the sickle for the strip-joint, cola tin and burger-bar. To have expelled the Germans and the Russians just to hand the whole thing over to -- America.
       Even before the transition is complete the first inklings of unexpected, unwanted side-effects become apparent -- different kinds of corruption, racially motivated violence, and more.

       Edgar does the politics quite well. The Communist experiment was obviously a failed one, but he shows that there is good reason to be concerned about the transition to familiar western European democracy as well (as well as how that transition is accomplished, itself something that brings consequences with it). He uses an interesting mix of characters in The Shape of the Table -- old Spassov and young Prus, various entrenched functionaries, a young administrative assistant.
       Edgar convincingly relates, in compressed style, the difficulties of post-Soviet transition -- remarkable, insofar he wrote it so early in the process (albeit at a time when several countries had already gone through this wrenching process). It's often clever and quite well done, and if it does not resonate quite as deeply as one might expect it is perhaps because it does come from being still too close to events.

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The Shape of the Table: David Edgar: Other books by David Edgar under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Drama books

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About the Author:

       British playwright David Edgar was born in 1948. He is best known for Tony award winning adaptation, Nicholas Nickelby

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© 2003-2014 the complete review

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