Brighton Fringe 2012
Why is this is a difficult production to review? Partly because it’s about a big, emotional subject – they don’t come much bigger than the Holocaust – and we all feel we have to tread very carefully while walking around it.
Partly because it’s not quite clear what I’m setting out to review. We spent an hour watching an actress portray a woman, Stella Goldschlag, who became a ‘Greifer’, betraying her fellow Jews to the Nazis, and we’re fascinated by how and why she could do such a thing. Sufficiently fascinated that at least half the audience stayed afterwards for a discussion with the director of the production, the author of the play, and the actress herself, Elizabeth Counsell.
So… am I reviewing the actress’ performance – her portrayal – or am I attempting to explain how Stella Goldschlag could have done the things she did and justify them to herself?. Or am I sitting in judgement on Stella and giving an opinion as to whether the situation she found herself in justified those actions? And of course, there’s the underlying question with all Holocaust material – the elephant in the room- if they behaved that way could I have done so too?
Gail Louw told us that she wrote ‘Blonde Poison’ pretty much from Stella Goldschlag’s own words – the journalist Paul, the one she’s waiting for in the play, did actually talk with Stella and it seems that none of these lines are made up. So we’re getting the thoughts and opinions of the woman herself.
I think Stella was able to betray her community because she had never really belonged to a community. She was young, and good-looking, and blonde, and she wanted to identify with life’s winners – "A good German family. A real German family…. We had culture. We had Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart. All of them". With her lover Manfred and their jazz music and their modern style – " The two of us. We were good looking. Both blonde. Both looked, how shall I say it, not Jewish!."
Not Jewish… Elizabeth Counsell gave us Stella’s scorn and distain, the sophisticated western Metropolitan spitting out the words in a heavy Germanic accent – "We had nothing to do with those primitives, those eastern ones, those scraggly, smelly, oh, they were disgusting. Their beards, those hats, those hats they wore. Big things, big black things. Look at me, I am Jewish. Jewish, Jewish. "
But she didn’t really belong to her family, either. Despised her father, her Vati – "You with your lieder, going to little concerts for Jews, to sing your lieder. Excited, like a little boy. You had so many you wanted to sing. They almost clapped, almost politely. But sniggered behind your back. You didn’t know that, did you Vati. I didn’t want you to know that. Mutti knew it. It made her despise you that little bit more." Despised her father too, for not having enough money – "… we’ll save you, because you are not just people, you are people who are encased with money. Money covers you, all round you, your eyelids, your heart’. But Stella, you and your Mutti and your Vati. Where is your money? No? Pity. What a pity."
Stella is completely self-centred – she puts a safe emotional distance between herself and everyone else, even a lover… " He’ll ask me about you. He’ll say, what happened to Manfred. I’ll say you were deported. He’ll say, how. I’ll say, how? What do you mean, how? How they all were. And he’ll say, but why not you? …Why not me? Because I’m clever, that’s why not. …My philosophy in life is this; if you can, you do, and if you can’t you don’t cry."
There were no cultural or family restraints to stop Stella’s head being turned by the glamour and the power – " I lived in an apartment in that complex, furnished and immaculate, me and Hans, and I had a green pass that I could flash at anyone who stopped me or questioned me or tried to get away from me, that and a revolver. My own revolver. And best of all, I did not have the Jewish star. I was the queen. I was the boss. I was the one causing all those vermin to hide, to run, to scuttle ". Vermin… This woman has managed to dehumanise Jews into rats or mice – as Nazi propaganda screamed that "Jews are the vermin of mankind". It brought to mind ‘Maus’, Art Spiegelman’s picture history of the Holocaust, where he draws the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats.
Elizabeth Counsell is tall and slender. Blonde curls above a white blouse and a black velvet jacket. Well-cut grey slacks. There’s a faded elegance about her that’s mirrored by the apartment she lives in. The set is simple – the surrounding stage all black, with furniture in the middle, quite flatly lit. Rather old-fashioned furniture – 1970s sideboard with a mirror, and a pair of armchairs in pale cream material with polished wooden details on the arms. It looks – safe, and I wondered what the jazz-loving Modern woman that Stella had been in her youth would have thought of it …
She’s still completely self-centred. For the duration of the play she’s waiting for the journalist Paul to arrive to interview her. She frets, like older people do, over details – when should she put on the coffee? – is her hair ok? – checking her lipstick in the mirror. Interestingly, the character the actress is portraying is behaving like an actress, trying out lines for an audition, choosing which bits of her script she wants to perform, what impression she wants to give to her visitor. She doesn’t have visitors – "I’m busy never seeing anyone" – so she’s not used to dealing with people, and her self-justifications get faster and louder and shriller and… suddenly she’ll catch herself and bring her voice back under control.
She keeps that safe emotional distance from anything too difficult, finding ways to block painful ( Stella would probably say ‘inconvenient’ ) memories – "You see how I am accused. How I am not understood. I only did it for my parents. Yes, that’s what you say, but then why did you carry on after your parents were deported?… …I’m so tired. Maybe I’ll just put my head down a minute, here, in the armchair. A few minutes, just to sleep a bit, not to think a bit.". Elizabeth Counsell was superbly believable with this material, her voice ranging from a whisper to shouting, hectoring her (imaginary) audience before dropping back to normal. My only criticism would be that the quiet bits were too quiet. I was only three rows back and it was difficult to distinguish some lines.
So how much should we blame Stella? She was under extreme duress, but so were many others and they didn’t behave in the same way. Her daughter, conceived at the very end of the War, refused to have any dealings with her, regards her as a Nazi, and herself as completely Jewish. – "She lives in Israel. I don’t know what she does. I don’t know anything about her. …She has a son. He is ten." At the end of the play there’s a knocking at the door – it seems that the journalist has arrived – and Stella, finally unable to cope with the past that the interview will unearth, shoots herself ( My own revolver…).
At the play’s opening, though, Stella had received a letter from her daughter, which she keeps glancing at throughout the play, and finally reads out – "I have a dream. The rifle in my hand is pointed at you and I walk through the streets of Germany until I find you. And when I do, I point the rifle directly at your head and pull the trigger. And only then will I stop atoning for the sins of my mother. I am Klara who had better not have been born.". We don’t actually know who was knocking, and perhaps finally it was her daughter that Stella would have been unable to face …