Can a WWII love story help stop a Brexit break-up? Created by Charles Sloboda-Bolton and written by Maria Laumark, Mary & Mietek uses the real life love letters shared between Sloboda-Bolton’s grandparents. Mary, an English girl, falls in love with Mietek, a Polish airman, during WWII. She is very young, and her parents don’t approve. He is traumatised by his experience of war, and fearful of what will become of both him and his homeland. They exchange letters, letters that are found by their grandson Ben. Ben is in love with Alma, but she is planning to leave Britain and him. Brexit has changed everything, taken away her sense of security and belonging. Ben is trying to understand, and maybe, just maybe, these letters will help them communicate with each other.
Due to illness Charles Sloboda-Bolton was unable to perform so Louis Cruzat was brought in to play Mietek. Given Sloboda-Bolton’s involvement in the creation of the show, not being well enough to perform must have been quite the blow. I hope he recovers fully and quickly, and I was glad to hear it wasn’t the dreaded Covid. Also a new director, Abi Smith was brought in when the previous director (Amy Rushent) had to leave (for positive work reasons, not Covid, and they have continued to co-produce the show). Knowing this going in, I was curious to see how it impacted the show, as that is a lot of disruption to be managing. I needn’t have worried.
I was in for the penultimate, sold out, performance of the run on 26th August. Director Abi Smith keeps things simple and focused. Lighting changes and sound effects help place the audience in terms of time period very effectively. Wardrobe changes are kept to an absolute minimum, which is good as with the repeated jumps in time, anything more complicated might have ended up feeling farcical and would have distracted from the story. Simplicity is a powerful tool in theatre, when it is used to give the actors the space they need to land the emotions of the play.
Laumark captures Mary’s youth, caution and burgeoning love beautifully, while as Alma we feel her sense of anger and betrayal. These are two very distinct characters, who face a similar choice in terms of deciding what they are willing to risk for love. Given Laumark’s double duties as playwright, she clearly knows both characters well, although I do wish we were given more time to sit with each of them, get to know them better and understand their choices more.
Cruzat (who I’d only recently seen obsessing about Dostoevsky in the lovely Slow Death of a Lotus Flower that also ran as part of the Camden Fringe), plays both Mietek and Ben. There is a wonderful solemnity to his Mietek, a seriousness to his love and a clear sense of his trauma and grief. I think there was scope to give this side of the story more room, to give us more time to absorb his sense of displacement, guilt and the pain that comes from being a refugee. It might be my own personal bias (my maternal grandparents were Polish and found a home in England because of WWII) but that side of the story felt under explored, possibly because they were limited to what was said in the letters. As Ben, Cruzat gives us a sense of someone desperate not to lose the person they love, but who despite, or maybe because of, the depth of their feelings, can’t find the right words. For someone drafted in at short notice, Cruzat does a really good job.
Ultimately Mary & Mietek has all the ingredients for an even more powerful longer piece. It is full of rich themes and emotional territories, all linked to real world events, that could be explored even more deeply. As it stands it makes for a rewarding and enjoyable evening of theatre, but I’d be excited to see it developed further.