Dec 2007 Journal

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Theatre of despair (theatre review)

by Peter Weiss
conceived and directed by Dorcy Rugamba and Isabelle Gyselinx
produced by Urwintore
Young Vic, London

by Candida Cave
directed by Ninon Jerome
New End Theatre, London

Does the Holocaust exist out of its time, like a rogue gene within mankind? Is it really rooted in mid-twentieth-century Nazi Germany or could it happen anywhere - a random nightmare made flesh? In this adaptation of Peter Weiss’s intense and challenging docu-drama The Investigation, a team of Rwandan artists, speaking in French with English surtitles, re-incarnate Auschwitz and the Nuremberg trials, while the roles of judge, victim and executioner flow seamlessly between them. It is a skeletal, truly pared-down production, in which the actors, dressed in white perhaps to suggest innocence, appear from all parts of the theatre in a slow and nonchalant manner that does nothing to convey the horrific events they are about to impart.

They proceed to deliver a catalogue of horrors that took place in the concentration camps – men forced to jump over sticks before going to the gas chambers, a boy with an apple in his hand whose head is dashed against the wall, mothers and their babies sent to their deaths, beatings and shootings that leave victims dead or dying. It is not difficult to see why this Rwandan production chooses the Nazi Holocaust to make the case that holocausts continue and are a part of society. The programme says: ‘In revisiting the Nazi war crimes trial, it is our own time in history that we examine. Such a crime should never have been possible again. Nothing comparable should have emerged and developed in the world after the Shoah.’

But tragically it did - in 1994, when Rwanda became the killing fields for millions of Tutsis and Hutus. And so, informed with their own Holocaust, they have delivered a theatre of anger and despair, without human names, only numbers and events of unspeakable cruelty. We are not asked to identify with the victims, only to acknowledge them. Is there a point to such a play? The answer is inconclusive. As the guilty remain in denial of their crimes pleading the injunction to obey orders, one of the actors finally asserts that ‘the society that produced the camps is our society’. In other words, there is a hidden drama going on between guards and prisoners, between perpetrators and victims - and that drama is the collusion of fear.

Lotte’s Journey gives us what The Investigation cannot: the true story of a single Holocaust victim. The young German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon painted her life in a feverish autobiography of 1,300 gouaches entitled Life? Or Theatre?, a vivid narrative which survived her death at 26 at the hands of the Nazis in 1943. Her work was admired by Marc Chagall and was exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1999 to considerable acclaim.

The paintings express her anguish at learning that the women in her family were all suicidal. Her mother, Franziska, grief-stricken at the suicide of her 18-year-old sister, throws herself out of a fourth-floor window. Her grandmother, who has lost two daughters, makes an attempt on her own life in September 1939 after Kristallnacht. Charlotte grows up believing her mother died of pneumonia and is told the truth at the age of 13 by her grandfather, who cruelly describes the depressive illness which has devastated her matrilineal line.

And now Charlotte and her successful family – her father a famous surgeon, her stepmother an opera diva – must confront their own Jewishness as Hitler turns Germany into a Nazi fortress.

In Candida Cave’s new play, the family tragedy is recalled as Lotte and her husband find themselves with others on a transport to the East, enduring filthy conditions and near starvation. Haunted by the suicidal tendencies of the women in her family, Lotte faces an ultimate test of character as realisation dawns that Auschwitz-Birkenau is her destination. As the destructive threads of Charlotte’s matriarchs begin to unravel, the Nazi presence hovers in the shadows of their dark narcissism. Perhaps Cave, like Weiss, is also making the point that genocide and self-destruction can be uneasy bedfellows.

Selina Chilton gives an incandescent performance as Charlotte, whose silent rage contrasts with Valerie Colgan’s compelling performance as the whining and clumsy Franziska and the tragic grandmother. The same cannot be said for the male actors, who appear wooden and ill at ease in their roles.

The play gathers pace after a somewhat stilted first half and uses symbolism to good effect. For example Lotte’s first love, Amadeus, sees her face in her drawing of birch trees – a haunting touch since she would, of course, die in Birkenau, a place of birch trees. The ending cleverly evokes the family death-wish yet, despite its powerful subject-matter, the play somehow fails to move.

Gloria Tessler

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