Brighton Fringe 2016
The White Crow: Eichmann in Jerusalem
Festival: Brighton Fringe
Ken Livingstone should really have been in the audience.
During this year’s election campaign for the London Mayor, Livingstone was vilified for his ‘Hitler’ remarks – claiming that the German Führer had initially intended simply to expel the European Jews to Palestine or East Africa, and had discussed this with Zionist leaders. There was predictable outrage from many quarters, yet there is ample historical justification for Ken’s comments, and some of this forms an integral part of ‘The White Crow’.
With wonderful synchronicity, Bootcamp Theatre were preparing this play for Brighton Fringe at the same time as Ken Livingstone was speaking into that microphone at the end of April …
The Theatre Box stage is quite small, with dark grey walls and a low ceiling. It was cluttered, with several chairs and a few easels carrying large photographs. And there were documents everywhere – some stacked in neat piles while others lay scattered around. The place had the oppressive feel of an underground interrogation room, or maybe a bunker.
A door must have opened off to one side, and a hooded man was guided in by a soldier in military fatigues. He was tall, in civilian clothes – a dark sweater and trousers – and when the hood was removed he blinked in the light and smoothed his receding hairline. It’s Adolph Eichmann – recently kidnapped by Israeli agents in Argentina and brought secretly to Israel to be tried for war crimes. During the war, he was SS Obersturmbannführer Eichmann, with a major responsibility for the deaths of millions in the ‘Final Solution’.
Then a middle-aged woman entered and introduced herself – she was in military uniform like the other soldier, dark blonde hair pulled back into a bun, and wearing a holstered side-arm on a webbing belt. “I am Dr Baum, serving temporarily on special assignment with Bureau Six of the Police of the State of Israel”. Heather Alexander gave her a clear direct voice, but from her bearing and her words it was already obvious that Dr Baum was no ordinary soldier. Was she a lawyer? Was she a psychologist?
Steve Scott had an equally clear voice, rather hectoring, and the actor managed to give Eichmann the mannerisms of a German officer without descending into parody. He stiffened a bit, didn’t quite click his heels, and addressed the woman as “Frau Captain Professor Dr Baum”. Right from the start it’s clear that Eichmann cares a great deal about status. “I was led to believe that Chief Prosecutor Hausner was to personally handle my case”. He doesn’t want to be dealing with some underling.
This is the man who ‘wasn’t responsible’. He sent millions to their deaths, but he tells Dr Baum that his job was – “Evacuation, deportation – railway timetables. I never decided the fate of one man after he reached his destination”. She tries to make him see the overall picture, the monstrous illegality of what he was involved in, but Eichmann responds – “When you are in uniform, there are no ‘illegal’ or ‘legal’ orders. There are only orders”.
He’s always justifying himself. He tells Dr Baum that in 1939 he met Zionist leaders, planning to send as many Jews as possible from Germany to live in Palestine. Later they came up with projects for Jewish resettlement in Poland – in an enclave to be known as Nisko – or alternatively in Madagascar.
But by 1941 the Nazi attitude changed, and SS leaders laid plans for the ‘Final Solution’ to the Jewish people at the infamous Wannsee Conference. As secretary to the Conference, Eichmann himself wrote the minutes. Now he tells Dr Baum that when he saw ‘respectable’ officials – his superiors – endorsing genocide, he could become “like Pontias Pilate, and wash my hands” of any personal responsibility.
Great theatre can give us a ringside view of difficult or challenging issues.- that’s the power of the medium. Bootcamp Theatre have had the courage and skill to take on a complex set of moral and legal arguments, and run them in front of an audience for over an hour. It could have felt like a philosophy lecture, but it didn’t – we were gripped from start to finish. There was an intensity to the performances that made it impossible to look away.
Both Steve Scott and Heather Alexander brought the characters to vivid life. Donald Freed’s script has a lot of fascinating historical detail, but it was the emotional portrayals that made it believable. Eichmann’s voice suddenly stopping in mid-sentence, when he comes up against a fact, a memory, that he doesn’t want to remember. Or Dr Baum coming close to losing her temper, and then the slight clenching of fists as she forces herself to calm down, to keep her cool, to do her job. (but what exactly is her job?)
Small examples – the minutiae of the actor’s craft – but these two carried them off flawlessly, and because the characters became flesh and blood, the issues became real and relevant as well.
Very assured pacing, too. ‘The White Crow’ simply has the protagonists circle one another, throughout the play, as Dr Baum tries to break through Eichmann’s defensive shell. They’re locked inside this small space – a hot and stuffy basement room that starts to feel like the inside of a pressure cooker as emotions rise. The two gradually ratcheted up the tension, but the increase in intensity wasn’t constant, so the audience was kept on its toes throughout.
We were given a close-up insight into an appalling period in recent history, but there’s also some mystery running through the play. Who is Dr Baum? What motivates her? What are her orders? Although she is a fictional creation of the playwright, put there to give us a window into Eichmann’s psychology, Heather Alexander played Dr Baum with such intensity that I believed in her completely as an historical figure.
I believed in the reality of interrogation room, too. It wasn’t particularly warm in the Theatre box, but as we left the space I wasn’t the only audience member taking in great gulps of fresh cool air.