Theatre: The Holocaust Trilogy New End Theatre, London
Thursday 23 November 1995
Pascal's three-part exorcism of the dybbuks of Jews killed between 1938 and 1945 is less daunting an experience than it might first appear. None of the plays is set in the midst of the Holocaust, but rather at the critical moment, just before and just afterwards. The closer we are to the camps, the more difficult it is to communicate dramatically.
The final play, The Dybbuk, set in an eastern European ghetto where a group of people await the imminent arrival of the Nazis to take them away, is the least successful, while A Dead Woman on Holiday, a simple love story which unfolds between two interpreters at the Nuremberg trials, is both moving and thought-provoking.
The trilogy opens with Theresa, which tells the story of a widow who is professor of music at the Conservatory in Vienna until the Nazis force her to resign. After Kristallnacht, Theresa leaves Austria and goes to London to seek work as a domestic. Pascal's research uncovered the collaboration of Channel Islands' authorities with their Nazi occupiers before the shameful fact became widely known, and the play charts Theresa's fate after her sympathetic employer takes her to Guernsey but fails to secure her escape.
The story unfolds, as is true of the entire trilogy, with a strenuous but seemingly dated synthesis of physical theatre techniques and Pascal's monologue-heavy text. Pascal's high moral tone, though admirable, periodically makes the writing heavy-handed and crude. The acting is inconsistent and often unfocused, but Theresa is carried by an excellent and charismatic performance by Ruth Posner in the title role. She personifies the culture and sophistication of Middle European Jewry and the indignity of coming to England to be treated like a servant. Imagining the brutality that awaited this intelligent and gentle person in Auschwitz is far more powerful theatrically than actually seeing it on stage.
A Dead Woman on Holiday also boasts a compelling central performance, this time from Claire Marchionne as the French-Jewish interpreter who goes to the Nuremberg trials believing that love can have no place in the world after Dachau and Auschwitz. She quickly discovers, of course, that love is the most urgent and appropriate mitigation of the atrocities that have taken place, but as she and her lover are already married, the question of guilt and responsibility comes keenly to the fore.
This play was originally performed in France, and the use of simultaneous translations of witnesses' testimonials is a wonderfully effective theatrical device which conveys the bewildering and traumatic task of interpreters. Almost all of the performers are bilingual, and the use of their various languages as well as great pieces of European classical music builds up a rich sense of European culture and difference. It chillingly reminds us, just as does the war in Bosnia, how such sophistication is a veneer that can all too easily be wiped out by nationalism, sectarianism and racial hatred.
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