Brighton Year-Round 2023
A multi-genre piece that can play anywhere, and needed now more than ever. Both to challenge denialists and most of all to illustrate the inhumanity of governments like ours towards refugees
Directed by June Trask. Lighting BNJC and props The Company.
With thanks to The SJRC Community Renewal Fund and BNJC for sponsoring this event.
Further touring dates TBA
Pastor Martin Niemöller’s epigraph And Then They Came For Me has so often been used for every failure to speak out since the 1930s. Here at least it’s as relevant as it gets. Los Angeles-based dramatist James Still adopted it in 2011 for his eponymous 70-minute work – part-play, part oral history/documentary, part witness video, part diary excerpts – of two young people who survived the Holocaust, and one, perhaps most famous of all its victims, who did not: diarist Anne Frank. Not that victim is the word for the extraordinarily self-aware Frank, or survivors like these.
The play’s uniqueness is the historical relationship of both young people to Frank – Eva Schloss born 1929, like Frank); and Ed Silverberg (Helmuth ‘Hello’ Silberberg, 1926-2015). One had familial links. The other rather fell in love with her. Both these survivors speak eloquently on the videos projected at the back. There is though, a heart-stopping surprise at the performance I attended.
Comprising four multi-roling actors and a video projection of both witness and historical footage, as well as sound system, it’s just been mounted at BNJC by director June Trask. She’s been touring it since 2017. Covid meant a long pause and a fresh cast, mostly just graduated. Its tour continues. The handsome programme, a facsimile of a Juden Reisepass at its front, is elegant, with good colour pics/bios of actors on the back, and an account of material and roles within. It needs to add the dramatist’s name though, having found room for Peter Kyle MP’s eloquent witness.
David Cole arrives in this framing role as the Nazi youth all ‘tomorrow belongs to me’ and shining morning face, slipping on his Nazi armband and heiling – with the projection and sound-system echoing with a chilly precision. It’s an unenviable role and Cole’s strength is to show how uncomfortable he is with it, as he digs into details of the narrative that marry up with others. This involves animals. You’ll see the reveal for yourself. Cole also takes the role of Eva’s musician brother (a brief strum of a guitar) and Ed’s father.
Michael Malone takes on Ed’s story: bright, spirited and as it turns out fighting ‘Hello’ is a beautiful fit – with real Ed on video Malone takes on his youthful truculence with panache: we believe here in his sheer survival instinct, including pushing a German soldier over to leap out of a truck. Both Eds witness their enchantment meeting Anne Frank. Malone also plays Eva’s ‘Pappy’ or father alongside Poppy Charlton (more on her soon). Graduating in 2022, Malone’s already moving quickly. He and Cole interact in one of the most touching reunions in the play, a code-whistling of the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth in Brussels.
Deryn Hawkins – known on film and TV (e.g. The Outlaws) makes for an appealing Eva, using stillness tellingly as she delivers Eva’s story. There might have been a particular reason for a sense of caution depicting Eva in this performance. Hawkins narrates in a rapt horror. Her other brief role is as Ed’s Mother.
Graduating in 2020, the already-experienced actor/singer Poppy Charlton is the standout, though Malone’s impressive too. Though playing Eva’s mother – great interplay between her and Hawkins here – her key role is Anne Frank. She morphs into the part like a shapeshifter, commenting “I think he likes me… I know he likes me” with girlish archness that’s heartbreaking and funny at the same time. Charlton though brings a gravitas and wit, a sardonic impatience, and sheer mobility to Frank: it’s there in her eyes. Charlton spins on the stage almost, with a rapidity of thought and motion convincing you you’re seeing Frank herself.
Narrative is thus interwoven, dramaturgy needing a bit more pace, but with space allotted and challenges involved in sashaying between media and even genres, it’s understandable. Subject matter alone is compelling, some acting breathtaking and stories unearthed almost beyond imagining.
Staging here is awkward in the new BNJC: with that video projection, staging in the round particularly, or traverse to a degree, makes the standard prosc-arch approach the most likely. Unraked seating means that people were craning to see actors and commentators and guests. This is a new building, with this its first dramatic presentation; teething troubles will resolve over time.
Still has clearly envisaged this as a piece that can play anywhere, and its educational need is – chillingly – needed now more than ever. Both to challenge denialists and most of all to illustrate the inhumanity of governments like ours towards refugees, othering and scapegoating. Nazi techniques have been horribly well-learned, especially here. That’s why we need it.
And with a sharp tender shock, we also realise Eva Schloss, nearing 94, is with us. She answers questions with dignity and aplomb. An almost unbearably special evening that will last with everyone privileged to see it.