History meets story

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 06.04.2018

Last week Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg and Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch presented Kindertransport at the Grand Théâtre. The play by Diane Samuels, which is often referred to as a modern classic, was first produced in London in 1993, i.e. 25 years ago.

Let’s start with a brief history lesson since it is the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport this year. In 1938 the British government was lobbied by Jewish and Quaker organisations to take in children fleeing persecution. War was coming to Europe, and countries had closed their doors to refugees, though everyone knew that the Nazis were orchestrating an unrelenting round of attacks against Jews both in Germany and in occupied countries.

The first Kindertransport of about 200 children left Berlin on December 1, 1938. They arrived in Harwich on December 2 – just three weeks after Kristallnacht. Most of these children came from a Jewish orphanage that the Nazis had destroyed. Transports arrived every week after this, leaving from the major cities in central Europe, with only a few days’ rest over the Easter holidays. They continued until the end of August 1939. On September 1 Hitler invaded Poland, and Britain was at war with Germany.

Anne Simon, who directs Kindertransport, offers us a beautifully atmospheric show. In the opening scene Helga (Catherine Janke) and Eva (Leila Schaus), mother and daughter, sit in an English attic in the mid-1980s, though they are both figures from the late 1930s. They are at home in Hamburg, and Helga is about to send her daughter to England in order to save her. Suddenly the door of the attic opens, and Evelyn (Suzan Sylvester), i.e, a middle-aged Eva, who has “anglicised” her name, enters with Faith (Hannah Bristow), her stroppy teenage daughter.

The stories of Eva and Evelyn are told in parallel, with the same character being played by two different actors. We see Eva/Evelyn struggling with her losses at various stages in her life. We also watch Evelyn refuse to answer the questions Faith asks. Stunned by her mother’s erratic behaviour and by her silences, the latter rebels and shouts. There are numerous time shifts as the writing slides from past to present and back again. Memory is made visible on stage. Characters from different eras move around each other and even start interacting.

Rather than separate past and present, Anne Simon has scenes not merely overlap but literally flow into each other. This gives the evening a unique fluidity, a poetry of its own as each of the women characters faces her own pain and inadequacies. The parallels between the experiences and the different sets of mothers and daughters are spellbinding. Secrets and lies separate and hurt.

It is a very subdued, understated production, a far cry from the exuberance and the colourfulness Anne Simon so often resorts to. The material asks for something controlled and much tighter – even though there is the odd humorous moment.

Diane Samuels calls Kindertransport “a work of creative imagination, written from the heart”. Though it is based on numerous interviews and testimonies, it never feels like a documentary play. Trauma is at the heart of it: What happens to the survivors of persecution? Will they ever come to terms with the past and then be able to move on? The author is interested in the inner life, in the psychology and the emotional make-up of her characters.

As a result, there are a lot of really raw feelings on show, but the evening never falls into sentimentality. It is too honest and direct for that. Besides, the acting is spot on. Leila Schaus deserves special mention since she offers an outstanding performance as Eva, the nine-year-old who is sent away – an adult playing a child, yet there is nothing surreal about the performance. Body language and tone of voice are key.

Helga, Eva’s birth mother, who felt she had to send her daughter away and later watched her husband being taken to the gas chamber, is still haunted by what she did in order to survive. She has been through hell and is then rejected by her own daughter. How unbearable can life become? Meanwhile, Lil (Jenny Lee), Eva’s foster mother, is a tough northern mum with a big heart. Generous and uncomplicated, she has an instinctive feel for what others need.

The versatile set by Marie-Luce Theis holds the different plotlines together. And over it all hovers the figure of the Ratcatcher (Matthew Brown), who is ever ready to pounce and attack.

Although many refugee children chose not to discuss their past, there are, in fact, a number of accounts written by former “Kinder”. They are filled with gratitude but also with worries about the future in a world where anti-semitism is still rife. If you want to read a more literary account of what happened, you should have a look at W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, a marvellous book.

Kindertransport was at the Grand Théâtre on March 27, 28, 30 and 31; it will now go to Ipswich, Richmond and Manchester

Janine Goedert
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