May 2006 Journal

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A Universal Message (theatre review)

I CAN CRY
by Miri Ben-Shalom
directed by Lester Richards
Pentameters Theatre, Hampstead, North London

The Pentameters Theatre is no stranger to challenging themes, as is evident in their latest production I Can Cry, a documentary play by film-maker Miri Ben-Shalom based on the journals of her aunt Ester (formerly Erna) Herschberg. The audience shares in a moving, powerful story compressed into 80 minutes. Beautifully acted and directed, this harrowing, yet uplifting dramatisation of a woman's struggle to survive the horrors of Nazi Europe conveys a universal message.

The youngest of eight children, Erna is a teenager in Cracow in 1939. The family could have settled in America or Palestine but the parents could not agree where to move. The family swiftly dwindles - three brothers are taken to forced labour; Manya, a married sister living in Lvov, a brilliant woman with two doctorates from the Jagellonian University, is taken prisoner and killed. Erna's parents are then deported, her mother enjoining her daughter to 'endure and be strong', and Erna is left with her sister, Rosa, and Manya's little daughter, Henrietta.

For much of the war Erna is in Plaszow, the labour camp ruled by the notorious Amon Goeth. There she loses Rosa and Henrietta and also a boyfriend, who, refusing to play hangman to his own father, is beaten to death. The older man quickly follows, inspiring Erna to recite David's lament to Saul and Jonathan. To ensure her Nazi captors will never kill her, she pockets a phial of poison.

Effectively staged, a cast of three - the older Ester (seated), her younger counterpart and a ubiquitous German officer - play against a backdrop of film footage, powerfully conveying an atmosphere of authenticity. There is also an element of suspense. Erna is transported to Auschwitz in January 1945, so we (the audience) anticipate her liberation but instead she joins a death march to Belsen, where she remains until April. Once again, she is cheated of liberation and transported to Mauthausen.

In the midst of her ordeals, Erna finds comfort in solidarity with groups of friends who become her new family. Sadly, these close-knit groups are often broken up by some incident. As the war nears its end, Erna's determination to survive is enhanced by the power of prayer, as she intones the Shema. Paradoxically, she almost succumbs to typhoid in an American hospital.

Emma Paterson is outstanding as the young Erna, with a performance riveting in its resilience and restrained emotion, while Bodo Friesecke is so convincing as the German officer that the prominent Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott, who was in the audience, was amazed by his transformation at the end into a sympathetic young actor who recounts the aftermath of the story.
Emma Klein

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