Edinburgh Fringe 2019
A fictitious talk show with a live audience, featuring a guest from the afterlife: Käthe Petersen. A seemingly selfless social worker who was active between the years 1932 and 1966 in Germany. But behind the facade of medals and apparent good works lies something else…
One of the joys of the Fringe is discovering a show about someone you have never heard of; a glimpse into history, someone whose life and actions have rippled on down through the years. Taboo is one such show.
Using the device of a television talk show, this one woman show written and performed by Karin Schmid gives a voice to a ‘special guest’, Kathe Peterson. A seemingly tireless and caring social worker in Germany between 1932 and 1966, Kathe saw her role as protecting the morality of women by any means necessary. ‘Social Worker’ somewhat understates both her position and power; she was highly intelligent and well qualified, having studied law and political science, psychology and economics and from 1937 was the deputy director of the Hamburg welfare department.
Whilst the beginning of the story lies in Nazi Germany and the National Socialist ideal of women as pure, perfect, home makers, the world that Schmid shares – one in which ‘fallen women’ are seen as the carriers of sexually transmitted disease, immoral … persisted until the 1970s. Peterson’s mission was to watch over such women and over nearly forty years she placed thousands of women in re-education facilities where forced labour and sterilisation were part of the programme. The story is all the more shocking for being one of a woman treating fellow women so harshly.
We are welcomed to the tiny intimate space at Sweet Novotel as though to a TV chat show, but without cameras. Schmid introduces her ‘guest’ and then slips us back in time to meet Kathe Peterson. She makes use of a variety of media with the interviewer as a voice over, interludes of radio and television adverts of the 1950s promoting the perfect woman, and verbatim accounts of women affected by Peterson’s policies – sent to the brothels serving the army or the re-education camps. These serve to point up the stereotypical female clichés and provide contrast to Petersen’s relatively cold unemotional view of her work.
Schmid slips smoothly between the character of Petersen and the adverts with the simple use of a mask (further highlighting how stereotypical the views of women were at the time) providing shifts in pace that keep us absorbed throughout. The technical side of the show playing the recorded voice overs for the interviewer and verbatim pieces were handled and timed perfectly, although I felt that the impact of the verbatim accounts would be greater if they were to be recorded by a range of different voices rather than a single one.
Overall, this is a hidden gem that is well worth the walk to find. A must see for anyone interested in discovering not only a little known but very influential figure from the Nazi era but also exploring events that still influence attitudes to women now.