Edinburgh Fringe 2018
Performer Ingrid Garner adapts her grandmother Eleanor’s best selling autobiography into a solo show. A German-American child in Berlin during World War Two with younger siblings to care for, Eleanor has to grow up very quickly.
The story begins in the United States, with a projected Statue of Liberty as a backdrop. Eleanor’s father makes a fateful decision to move the family to Germany, not believing the rumours that war is about to break out. Eleanor loves her home in Stratford, New Jersey, right down to the large oak tree in the yard which she hugs and tells all her secrets and she definitely doesn’t want to leave.
Eleanor’s mother is beautiful and reserved and her father is intimidating. Her brother Frank is not much older than her but she adores him with the admiration usually reserved for much older siblings. Eleanor protests the move but her father is not a man to be trifled with – it will just be for two years, then they’ll be back in America. Garner plays each character with specificity and care, their physicality and voices distinct, transitioning between them with ease. Playing a child without resorting to caricature is a challenge for any adult actor and Garner manages to strike the balance between innocence and intelligence to make Eleanor believable and endearing.
The family set sail, and their journey is hardly underway when there is an announcement that Germany has declared war on Poland. There is panic amongst the passengers as the crew repaint the ship with French colours. A short while later, another announcement – France and England have declared war on Germany. Further panic and the ship is repainted once again, this time to Norwegian colours as the captain takes a different route.
On arrival in Germany, the family attempts to get back to the United States but this proves impossible. They have no choice but to go ahead with their plan to start life anew in Berlin.
The projection screen backdrop is put to good use displaying old photos depicting the scenes described in the narrative. The simple set – a few chairs – is used effectively to create different environments – school, the dinner table, a bomb shelter. The family settle in to German society and young Eleanor’s enthusiasm – and her mother’s obvious fear and distate – about joining Hitler Youth is uncomfortable for an audience who knows exactly what happens next.
What sets this show apart from the many other depictions of wartime Germany is the fact that Eleanor and her family are half-American (her father holds citizenship and it appears that Eleanor and Frank were born or at least raised there) and the depictions of their father rebelliously flying the American flag outside their home and their mother’s reaction to this, and the way Eleanor is treated at school when America enters the war are among the most interesting parts of the narrative.
In a scene where being American saves the family from an atrocity at the hands of a Russian soldier, I am reminded of another play I’ve seen this festival where being British saves a man from police brutality in Eastern Europe. Status by Chris Thorpe couldn’t be more different in form and content but both shows address the idea of nationality and identity. Eleanor’s Story could afford to investigate this in more depth – being an American brings her both persecution and privilege and when she returns to America after the war, what will her relationship to her national identity be then? Can you ever really come home?
When many of her neighbours are injured and killed in a bomb blast, we are reminded that war is never clear-cut and simple. A horrific description of two young children being hit by a phosphorus bomb drives home the point that there are no good guys in this situation – war is horrific for everyone involved, particularly civilians who are caught in the cross-fire.
Eleanor’s Story has been touring internationally for some time and is a very well-crafted piece. The challenge of deciding what to include from her grandmother’s book in a show of just an hour long must have been very difficult – I’m not sure how much this has changed since the show’s inception but Garner has structured a narrative which feels complete. It may not be groundbreaking but it is a very well made and performed piece of theatre. For anyone interested in this period of history, I would certainly recommend it.