Ghetto survival

Voices from Theresienstadt New End Theatre, Hampstead

Welcome to the "As If" world: the Theresienstadt ghetto, 60km from Prague. As if there were no Final Solution, it was used by the Nazis as propaganda to show the world the Jews living in a Paradise Ghetto with a school, coffee house and regular concerts in the cental square. In reality, it was an overcrowded staging post for Auschwitz, to where regular train transports were dispatched. And as if it were possible to live some sort of normal life in a place like this, the inmates succeeded in organising a flourishing cultural life of theatre, concerts and cabaret to help escape reality and even poke fun at it.

The "As If" song is at the centre of a theatrical evocation of this "As If" town for an "As If" race, performed by the Norwegian actress and singer Bente Kahan and a couple of very accomplished musicians on violin and accordion. Voices from Theresienstadt draws on songs and cabaret material surviving from the ghetto. With a couple of suitcases and a limited assortment of props, Kahan portrays five different women sharing the floor of a women's barracks. There's a vivacious, young actress from Prague; a cultivated, bespectacled old lady who works in the ghetto library; a pianist afraid of losing the music in her fingers; an Orthodox Danish mother of four, and a wealthy woman from Hamburg absolutely appalled at the conditions. She'd been told Theresienstadt was a sort of spa and was expecting a room with a balcony and bath. Their reactions to the conditions in the ghetto and their different ways of dealing with the "As If" world are dramatically interwoven with the songs that punctuate the performance: "Theresienstadt, Theresienstadt, The snazziest ghetto the world has got!"

Alongside the versatility of her performance, what makes Kahan's portrayal of Theresienstadt so powerful is the way she avoids making her characters into heroes. There is petty rivalry and, surprisingly, racism: the German Jews look down on the Czech Jews, and they both resent the special treatment of the Danish Jews. Zdenka Fantlova, a Czech Jew who herself performed cabaret in Theresienstadt and went to see the show with me last week, was immensely impressed by its accurate and irreverent tone: "People tend to think that everything in Theresienstadt must have been very sad. It wasn't. There was never an atmosphere of fear or despair amongst us young ones. And people misunderstand why the theatre and cabaret started. It wasn't to counteract the conditions, it was much more a continuation of what had gone on before the war. There were actors, directors, designers, composers, musicians, and they said, 'Since we are here, we might as well do something!' Then in doing it, it gave people a feeling of strength and hope. Then it became something heroic, but that was really accidental."

Although the characters in the play are "types" rather than specific people, Zdenka Fantlova was able to recognise in Kahan's performance an actress she'd known in the ghetto. "Vava Schon did puppet theatre, Cocteau's La Voix Humaine, and she directed me in a Czech comedy. When she performed La Voix Humaine, Murmelstein, one of the Council of Jewish Elders, fell for her. He was very ugly and she joked about him saying he looked like a pig. But she flirted with him and went with him in the end and it saved her life." This story is vividly alluded to in a couple of episodes, and other stories more desperate and more tragic. Kahan's picture of Theresienstadt is built up through snatches of one-sided dialogues (rather like La Voix Humaine itself) and the small details make a broad and vivid canvas. Eventually the women's actions and choices have life and death consequences. "The tragedy of Theresienstadt," said Zdenka, "comes through, in that Kahan portrays people who behaved normally in abnormal conditions."

One of the cabarets Zdenka herself performed included a scene in which the Empress Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II (who built and named the town) were sitting on a cloud looking down on Theresienstadt, trying to work out what on earth was going on. Suddenly two new souls flutter up to the cloud, freshly arrived from the ghetto. They try to explain what is happening, but without success. For us today, it is just as difficult to make sense of the unbelievable courage and creativity that went on in the jaws of death. But many answers lie in the music composed there, the cabaret performances, the songs and the testimonies of those who experienced and even, according to Zdenka, enjoyed it. Pieces like Voices from Theresienstadt play a powerful and important part in understanding life in the"As If" town: "One bears the awesome fate 'As If' it weren't so bad / And talks about tomorrow 'As If' one's to be had"n

'Voices from Theresienstadt' is at the New End Theatre, Hampstead, London NW3 (booking: 0171 794 9963). To 6 July.

Bente Kahan performs songs from the show on a CD: 'Voices from Theresienstadt' (Dybbuk Promotion DP 1818) Simon Broughton

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor