Brighton Fringe 2018
Under The Skin
Tik-Sho-Ret Theatre Company
Festival: Brighton Fringe
At the close of the Second World War, Europe was awash with people who’d lost everything. Their country. Their home. Their family. Everything but their life. The victorious Allied armies set up camps to provide aid and shelter, and the people themselves were classified as – Displaced Persons.
Displacement is a central device in ‘Under The Skin’, in several senses of the word. Just three actors portray a number of characters in Yonatan Calderon’s play – seven in all, constantly moving between identities – and the action constantly jumps back and forth between two wars, almost fifty years apart. We could very easily have lost our bearings, but Ariella Eshed’s confident direction kept the narrative coherent – creating links across the decades like a well-choreographed ballet.
How far would you go to stay alive? How many standards and principles would you betray? It’s 1945, and Lotte Rosner and Ida Berman are Jewish prisoners in Neuengamme Concentration Camp, performing forced labour for the Nazi Reich. The Allies are approaching, so it can’t be that much longer before they’re liberated – if they can stay alive. They are starving, and the lack of food combined with the harsh conditions are making them weak and ill.
But Lotte has caught the eye of Bube, one of the camp’s SS officers. ‘Bube’ is the prisoners’ nickname for Ilsa Kholmann, a nasty piece of work even by the standards of the SS, with a reputation for violence and brutal punishments against the Jewish women. She’s a lesbian, and she singles Lotte out for special treatment; protecting her from danger and providing extra food – presumably in exchange for sex.
Ilsa Kholmann calls it ‘love’, though, and the fruit she offers (apples – how appropriate …) make all the difference to the Jewish woman’s health. But when Lotte tries to share her gains with her friend Ida, the other woman is disgusted by the food’s origin and refuses to eat it, leaving her in progressive decline.
So who was right? I wouldn’t presume to judge between them – but history is written by the winners and survivors. Suffice to say that fifty years later it’s Lotte who’s living in an apartment in Tel Aviv, while Ida’s body finally lost the battle, just as their camp was liberated. Lotte Rosner is Lotte Brod now, married after the war to another Holocaust survivor, but a widow for years.
In the camp the prisoners wear long coats – thin material, white with narrow green stripes. And their yellow stars. Bube is dressed in SS uniform and carries a truncheon – which she’s not loath to use. But then the scene freezes, and in a swirl of movement the women change their clothing, passing each other items and taking garments from a coat stand and a rail. All the transformations were done almost as ballet, with elegant sweeping movements as the actors moved past each other round the set.
At the end, the actor playing Bube has morphed into Lotte – but Lotte as an old woman – and we’re in her Tel Aviv home in 1991. Adi Loya didn’t just discard some of Bube’s harsh vocal range, she altered her whole body language and even seemed to shrink slightly in stature as she became the elderly Jewish woman.
Batel Israel, the actor who’d given us Ida, just exchanged her long prison coat for a white shawl, and after helping with the costume changes she simply hovered in the background of Lotte Brod’s apartment. Israel’s a very versatile actor – back in the Camp she also played two cameo roles as German officers.
The younger Lotte (the one from the camp) put on a dark leather jacket, and with her long blonde hair unloosened she became a young German journalist, in Israel to cover the Gulf War – but also to seek out the older Lotte.
This German visitor is Kirsten Eberhardt, and she tells us she’s come because Lotte had been an accomplished ballet dancer in Prague before the war. Natasha Lanceley – who plays both women, of course – has ballet skills herself, and in one of the play’s many flashbacks she puts on her points and tutu and Lotte dances the role of ‘Giselle’ for the camp Commandant’s party.
But has Kirsten Eberhardt come simply for that? What does she really want? The visit reopens Lotte’s carefully-buried memories of her time in the camp. Painful memories. Confused memories. Lotte and Ilsa had had … what? – a relationship? a love affair? Ilsa had called it love, and had saved Lotte’s life on a number of occasions – but how can anyone even consider what happened as some kind of love story? The power imbalance inherent in their relationship, and the threatening background of violence and death, must surely make such a suggestion grotesque. And yet … we’re all familiar with the alliances often formed between victims and their captors, the phenomenon known as Stockholm Syndrome. Could something like that have happened here?
The moral and ethical quandaries of this piece will stay with me for a long time, but what’s flooding my mind as I write this review is the production’s effortlessly fluid staging. The continual flashbacks and changes of scene were stunningly realised, as I’ve mentioned above, by the balletic choreography of Revital Snir. She’s managed to change what’s a dramatic necessity into something of breathtaking beauty – a flurry of movement overlaid by Duncan Woodford’s thirties swing-music soundtracks.
Remarkable set, too. Joanne Marshall managed to change the locations on the black stage at The Theatre Box by the most minimal means – simply turning over a length of shiny-backed fabric converted a sitting-room tablecloth into a piece of leather in the concentration camp workshop. When the women were moved by train to another camp, crammed into livestock wagons for a two day journey without any stops, they simply stacked up the wooden boxes that had formed the table and squeezed together behind them. With a single overhead lamp sending shafts of light through the slats in the boxes, and the sound of the railcars clattering over the track, we had all the cues we needed to be there with them – apart from the stench …
A final thought. Did you catch my tone of moral outrage when I described the suggestion of a love story as ‘grotesque’? That’s because I’ve got involved. I’ve identified with the situation and taken a side. I’ve believed in the characters as living, breathing beings. Isn’t that the mark of a great production?