As you enter the main studio at The Arcola Theatre, you are presented with a grove of silver birch trees leading to an old fashioned and very simple looking front room, complete with wood burning stove. For Silver Birch House, a play about an isolated rural Turkish family in the 1970’s, the usual magical transformation of this huge space has once again happened. The highly versatile former factory has, in the name of drama, been a building site, a car park, a 19th Century Viennese drawing room, an African Macbeth’s castle and even a factory again.
Leyla Nazli’s first play, directed by Arcola founder and artistic director Mehmet Ergen, is probably very accessible to Dalston’s large Turkish community, but for others the significance of some events can be difficult to grasp without research, the play being so rooted in the recent history of the country leading up to the 1980 military coup. Here is a world where traditional gender roles still hold firm, and the universal education of children is not assured (they are amazed to hear about Hitler and the Nazi genocide, but their mother believes that Jews drink babies blood). It is hard to relate this to the Turkey we see in 2007, where many thousands of Britons regularly holiday, nearly neighbours in a globalised world. Of course Turkey in 2007 is also at the crossroads between Islamic, secular and even military domination, but it also sits on the edge of Europe, eager to join the EU.
The family drama, with shades of Brechtian political exposition, is reminiscent of Chekhov in its use of a semi-isolated idyllic rural location, dysfunctional relationships and metropolitan longing. The acting is slightly uneven in some of the smaller roles, but Peter Polycarpou is brilliant and absolutely natural as Hyder, the uncompromising and harsh head of the household, unconcerned with other peoples’ feelings. His wife, Sebe, beautifully played by bird Brennan, is fraught with worry and plagued by her obstinate and violent husband. Their daughters want a life away from rural poverty and domestic disharmony, and their son Tamer (Philip Arditti) yearns to meet people different from himself. He befriends a group of Communist Guerrillas, mostly idealistic students, and is awakened to the possibilities of life outside rural oppression. The rebels and oppressive government forces are both active in the area, either could be the death of a man with his name on the wrong political list. This political awakening leads to tragedy for the family, and ultimately exile to the city, their culture left behind.
Overreaching these events is the wider conflict of the cold war, America using Turkey as a bulwark against The Soviets. Inside Turkey the militarist government is fought by guerrilla communist resistance movements, who are trained and backed by The Russians. Where this plays is set, in far eastern Turkey, local language and culture are suppressed by the government in favour of a Turkish identity (see also the continuing battle of Kurdish people for independence).
The play is very interesting, and with bit of effort, very illuminating. The history of modern Turkey is important in helping us understand their place as bridge between the Islamic and European worlds, this play gives us some clue these conflicting cultures.