An Die Musik | Tricycle Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Twenty-five years ago, Pip Simmons created a work for his theatre company that he hoped would counter timid and sentimental portrayals of the Holocaust. Though he "never intended to produce a great piece of theatre", An die Musik was a great hit during a two-year European tour. Critics in this country called it "terrifying", "harrowing" and "overwhelming".

Twenty-five years ago, Pip Simmons created a work for his theatre company that he hoped would counter timid and sentimental portrayals of the Holocaust. Though he "never intended to produce a great piece of theatre", An die Musik was a great hit during a two-year European tour. Critics in this country called it "terrifying", "harrowing" and "overwhelming".

It's easy now to see why. In 75 minutes, the theatre-goer is truly faced with the mouth of Hell. Six healthy young actors in concentration-camp uniforms are supervised by a Nazi who... shouts at them! The Nazi actually gets one of the prisoners to... throw a bucket of water over another one! Then he forces the Jews to play and sing the Schubert song of the title. He exposes one man's penis, and makes the others point at it and laugh - harrowing indeed, to those not inured to The Guardian's woman's page.

Now presented by the Jewish State Theatre of Bucharest, An die Musik is itself an embarrassingly sentimental relic, as well as a monument to artistic naïvety and narcissism. The largely wordless piece begins in the house of Anne Frank, where she and the other celebrants of a Sabbath dinner are mysteriously attended by a Nazi. He gives them a loaf of bread, then a dish of bones, makes Anne remove her knickers, and - I warned you this was harrowing - lashes everyone with a folded napkin. A live dove is brought out and threatened with a knife. When the Nazi shoots one of the Jews, the dove, a great little trouper, gives a tiny hop, but otherwise remains as imperturbable as the audience.

Onto the concentration camp. The Jews are tortured with a routine of jogging and press-ups. They remove their clothing and use it to scrub the floor. At last, naked, each plays an instrument as smoke rises and we hear a Hebrew chant that includes the names of the camps, rather like the one that ended The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970).

It's not only our knowledge of what really went on in concentration camps or memories of Monty Python's naked piano player that make An Die Musik look silly. As Simmons rightly says, since the show's first appearance, a flood of entertainments has simplified and trivialised the period, which risks becoming the hostage of Hollywood glamour and uplift. The intervening years, however, have also produced a great deal of serious investigation and reassessment, which Simmons himself trivialises. "Academics, artists and educational awareness programmes make an effort, but they seem only to prove our own readiness to distort historical reality." That's a remarkably condescending dismissal, especially from someone who presents such bizarrely distorted versions of history.

Failures of economics, teaching, and law create nowadays, as they have in the past, the conditions that lead to right-wing thuggery, whose resurgence is Simmons's other reason for reviving An Die Musik. But the biggest obstacle now to a proper understanding of the Holocaust (and perhaps the greatest danger to society) may be our increasing fragmentation and isolation, and our bombardment by media that blur fiction and fact. An arch and stylised work such as this is not one that helps humankind to know or to bear very much reality.

To 7 Oct (020-7328 1000)

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