At midnight in a cottage on the outskirts of a village, vivacious, carefree 17-year-old Elodie visits the boy she has fallen for, a big-hearted, soft-headed 15-year-old soldier called Otto. Like young people since time immemorial, the two dance around each other like awkward moths around the flame, stumbling over their sentences, sweating the small stuff. Bombs that will prove the Second World War’s dying breath sound around them.
The young couple are superbly drawn by playwright’s Rita Kalnejais. Charmingly believable as they fumbling over their half-formed, often silly, thoughts, they radiate the warmth of uncomplicated first love. But This Beautiful Future is anything but simple in its ambition. Wrapped in its layers of ordinary life – brilliantly observed – the play deftly dances through a wealth of dualities, contrasting tone and setting, good and evil, the ordinary and the extraordinary, the past and the future, life and death. Elodie and Otto pull the audience into their little world, ensuring we are much too invested in it to turn on them when Kalnejais turns the tables on us, gently pulling back the curtain on the hypocrisy of the human condition as she goes.
Otto is a member of German Army – a true believer, a fanboy of his pop star Hitler, but still the simple-minded, gentle teen beloved of the ditzy but determined Elodie, who is so enamoured she barely blinks an eyelid as he reveals his firing squad murder tally. This Beautiful Future doesn’t allow its audience the option of easy outrage, and is all the more powerful for it. Love is ordinary. Evil is banal. While the dialogue dazzles with its directness and simplicity, the play is structurally inventive in a way that illuminates rather than complicates. The young couple are sandwiched by an older, middle-aged man and woman, who are each in their own karaoke box, intermittently crooning pop songs and revealing their regrets and resolutions.
It’s a masterstroke that, sparingly deployed, never feels contrived, framing themes – birth and death, beginnings and endings, love and hate – and suggesting contemporary relevance, before collapsing the two worlds together. Here, form, like the overall tone of the play, feels like a warm embrace. Jay Miller’s canny direction gives the play space, trusting the audience to bring the heartbreak themselves in a way that feels in keeping with the play’s warmth and intelligence.
The potentially alienating effects of surtitle screens, LED displays and projected text are combined with sassy, fourth wall-breaking audience engagement which, again, perfectly catches the play’s human directness. Hannah Millward and Bradley Hall as Elodie and Otto are a delight to watch as they bound around the stage, blossoming in the most difficult of circumstances. With their buckets of charm, we’re easily able to forgive their characters’ shortcomings, and understand them as the kind of myopia we all have – the kind that makes over-arching ideologies feel like a fantasy story compared to the tactile immediacy of our everyday lives.
That This Beautiful Future wears this complexity so lightly is a testament to its brilliance, and a lesson the writers of right-wing-bashing, tub-thumping, more straightforwardly outraged plays should take on board. Its plea for more alertness and less judgement is enveloped in a hug rather than a hammer over the head. Let’s hope we haven’t see the last of this play, or its kind.