Brighton Fringe 2016
At Exeter Street, Something Underground Productions present Jonathan Brown’s new play, following on from his acclaimed Brighton Trilogy.
Jonathan Brown and Something Underground Productions present Brown’s new full-length play, following on from his acclaimed Brighton Trilogy. It’s been eagerly anticipated.
Investigating the village life of his in-laws and based on previous Holocaust research Brown’s created disturbing, challenging theatre.
The Goldbergs are a well-to-do Jewish family whose son Sol’s in love with ‘Aryan’ Hilda Brandt, who unrepentantly returns his love. It’s 1938. They all enjoy artistic turns including Hilda with a Rilke poem and violin. Events overtake; loud but shrewd Gustav tells Sol they must obtain false papers. Both manage this after surviving Kristallnacht on the run under tarpaulins. This pogrom turns mass eviction to the camps. Much later Hilda spots Gustav who warns her she’s endangering him. David Stephens’ bravura performance commands with superb projection, shrunken where necessary. His later appearances are limited to astonishing, vocally silent entr’actes as camp-film director Kurt Gerron.
Hilda and father Klaus Brandt reject each other. Simon Hellyer’s stalking fury perfectly contains his towering presence, paced into whispering menace. After Hilda’s own eviction you’d think them headed in opposite directions.
The three Goldbergs disperse. Anya’s too young to figure in the early narrative; Luci Fol’s appearance comes in the second half. Chrissie White’s mother Martha presides warmly in the early scenes. Her son Sol passes as German, now a Nazi official Kurt. Brown as Commandant Schultz tells him to prove his credentials with a woman with no papers. Schultz allows her to speak. She commands her son, wherever he’d be, to do what he has to, to survive.
He’s posted to Theresienstadt in former Czechoslovakia. Klaus Brandt’s commandant: postings to camps were never promotions. Sol/Kurt proves Brandt says a good Nazi. No matter how many he clandestinely saves this involvement blackens him like his SS uniform. Daniel Grimston convinces as the cocky insecure young pianist who can still trill Mac the Knife slowly as if it’s Schubert on the dummy piano.
In a rare scene of comic relief two guards – Willy (Patrick Carmody) and Freddy (Brown again) – are presented with the fetching Hilda in rags, claiming she’s a Jew. They try persuading her not to enter, claiming overwork; she resorts to offering anything to gain admittance. She claims Brandt’s her father, switching stories. Will he acknowledge her?
Put to tuning pianos she’s reunited with Anya, who’s fey, somewhere else psychically giving a harrowing account of her time in sewers: refusing to hide there any more, the stench betrays her. Flo hunches her performance as naïve yet knowing Anya, artistically gifted, whom Hilda embraces. Their reunion’s a highpoint. Flo’s all harrowed withdrawal, sculpting a fragile sensibility. Isabella McCarthy Somerville explodes with tears and relief, devotedly caring for Anya.
They’ve not counted on Sol/Kurt arriving; this scene full of appalled obfuscations ratchets up fury.
Brown’s theatricality is phenomenally detailed and fluid, leaving no awkward joins. During scene-changes we’re treated to strobe effects and jerky movements of people filmed as if enjoying themselves. Most chilling is Stephens, beaten like a Keystone Cop whilst moving scenery.
Denouements are of the finest. There’s a scent of Arthur Miller in family journey. Shocks – several extraordinary – force questions of the play’s title.
One scene provides Flo’s querulous Anya with seeing her mother as a Red Cross Official. It’s a superbly apposite coup of White in a different bullish role, brought off with the wounded innocence of a blinkered, kindly official.
One seasoned director claimed this play can easily bear comparison with C. P. Taylor’s 1981 Good and Joshua Sobol’s 1984 Ghetto. I’d not disagree. Both Martha and more quietly Anya show heroism in endurance and finally their beliefs as much as Hilda whose position’s slightly more insulated. Brown asks the very difficult question of what heroism is; in these three women he finds contrasting answers. It’s men who can’t provide one; this might perplex those who overlook the women Brown affords us.
McCarthy Somerville as Hilda gives an outstanding performance in her extreme central role. Her truth, her contained fury and above all shuddering recognition dominate the play’s emotional trajectory. The only flaw comes early, a direction soon ironed out. Reciting that Rilke poem arrives like prose; speaking out to the audience breaks the fourth wall. Tiny imperfections – they are small – will disappear. The increasing confidence of the fine cast, Stephens and Hellyer’s containments, the consummate Brown, the deft quicksilver of Flo and White as well as strong support from Carmody more than solidly realize the play. Grimston has the immense task of drawing our sympathy, which he seems closer and closer to achieving.
This is an outstanding play and when it tours it’ll become almost certainly an outstanding production. Anything can now be expected of Brown as playwright and man of the theatre. He deserves national exposure.