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Edinburgh Fringe 2023


Christopher C Gibbs

Genre: Biographical Drama, Biography, Theatre

Venue: Pleasance


Low Down

We are invited to witness Wiesenthal’s last day in his office in Vienna. For us, he recaps his work while packing up and trying to solve one last case.


The stage is crammed. Crammed with archive boxes. Some closed, some still open, waiting to be fully packed. There is a cluttered desk with an old-style rotary phone, despite it being 2003, two chairs, an easel with a map of central Europe, and among all this and slightly out of place, is a flower pot with a blooming sunflower. Only towards the end will Wiesenthal reveal why he has this plant in his office.

Wiesenthal sits at his desk. He is on his phone, promising to bring milk. The audience giggles. No one expected a play about Simon Wiesenthal to start like this. The Wiesenthal on stage is approachable, sweet and funny. He emanates a joie de vivre, one doesn’t expect, and occasionally comes across as bumbling. There is something avuncular about him, and one is reminded of the beloved younger brother of a grandparent. He greets us warmly and then excuses himself. He picks up the phone and tries to get hold of a journalist who has information on a Nazi torturer in hiding abroad. The Wiesenthal on the phone is a completely different person. Polite, yet forceful, precise, and sharp. It dawns on us why this man entered history as one of the great Nazi hunters.

Finished with the call, he declares that we are his last student group. The predominantly boomer audience laughs. It is his last day in his office in Vienna. He talks so fast, we know he has squeezed us in before he even tells us. The words just tumble out of him. A quick overview of his family, wife, daughter, grandchildren, the lot, followed by a summing up of what he does. He is not working for any agency. He is his own master. Wiesenthal doesn’t want revenge; he wants to share knowledge. He wants to educate everyone, including us. So he gives an overview of Germany in the 1920s, of how the German people felt. There is surprisingly a lot of understanding in this man for a people who murdered his family and millions more. Wiesenthal shows true intelligence without arrogance; this is rare. He also reminds us that genocide is not a purely Jewish story. It has been done before to the Armenians. He explains why it is important to know this and why we should never forget the human element of history. It is people who make history.

Of course, we also learn Wiesenthal’s personal story. He talks about his family, his time in camps, his liberation at a time he had already resigned himself that death was imminent. He reminds us that thousands were so weakened that liberation couldn’t save them anymore. Lovingly, he talks about his wife and how he found her again after he believed her dead already. The story is so bizarre and told with so much panache, we all just giggle and are happy for and with him. Wiesenthal sees humour as a bridge between people. So he tells us a silly joke. We all laugh. Not obligingly, but because this silly joke is really funny. He excuses himself, gets back on the phone trying to reach the journalist. Again, we witness this complete change in Wiesenthal from the charming old man to a steely agent with determination.

This wouldn’t be a play about Wiesenthal if it didn’t spend time on Eichmann and his trial in Israel. Eichmann was responsible for more deaths than the whole population of Austria. The auditorium is deadly silent when the audio of his ‘im Sinne der Anklage nicht schuldig’ is played. Wiesenthal translates ‘not guilty,’ but the sharp intake of breath had made it clear already; this audience knows. At the trial, Wiesenthal is disappointed at not seeing a monster in the dock, but a bookkeeper. We are told that although he is often credited with hunting down Eichmann, it was Mossad, the Israeli intelligence, and special operations ‘institute’.

This trial makes him known in the world. He now receives letters addressed to the ‘Nazi hunter, Vienna,’ both the tip-offs and the threats. When Wiesenthal talks about what his family had to suffer as a result of his work, the audience is deeply affected. He tells us about the Holocaust deniers growing up in post-war Austria. Wiesenthal understands why and engages with the youth who believe Anne Frank and her diary is a fabrication. A teenaged boy challenges him to find the guard who imprisoned Anne Frank if it is all true. Wiesenthal finds the man, brings him to trial, and proves beyond doubt that Anne Frank’s story is real.

Throughout the play, Wiesenthal is portrayed as an intelligent man who has a good understanding of people. He is charming and funny but can be serious and direct when needed. He is hardworking, considerate but not easily duped. He differentiates between the approach to dealing with history by the Austrian and German governments. The first lacks willingness while the second is fairly keen. He sees people’s motives, knows that they are often not lily-white, and is aware of the stalling tactics that are used. Wiesenthal is aware his work is just a drop in the ocean, but nevertheless, he knows it is important and he carries on. Until the very last minute, when he tries to persuade a receptionist at a Middle Eastern hotel to confirm the presence of an SS officer in hiding. He fails, and that is also part of his job. As he closes the door to his office for the last time, he reminds himself to buy milk for his wife.

This is a very sensitive but also humorous play by Tim Dugan.  It deals not only with the historic facts but also the psyche of the German and Austrian people pre and post-war. This understanding is important for it carries a warning for future generations not to see themselves immune to demagoguery. It shows that the world isn’t black and white, and to succeed in one’s quest one needs all shades of grey as well. The role of Wiesenthal is brilliantly acted by Christopher C Gibbs directed by Mark Liebert.  Gibbs creates two distinctive characters. The jovial grandfather type who talks to us, the student group, as well as the steely business type who uses all methods available to him, even some that aren’t quite kosher, to track down Nazi murderers. Liebert, who also designed the clever set, has created an entertaining play that truly educates the audience without ever becoming preachy. The performance I saw was sold out, but most of the spectators were old enough to remember Wiesenthal. This play should really be seen by millennials and younger.