White Bear Theatre
Reviewed – 7th March 2019
“the six-strong cast work hard to lift this piece, and they all give extremely watchable performances”
Lying in the sleepy heart of the Netherlands is the unassuming village of Westerbork. Off the tourist trail in the Province of Drenthe, it is not easy to find. Almost no one visits, yet it is an area of outstanding beauty, and home of vast stone burial chambers. Over five thousand years old they rival Stonehenge in scale and mystery. But among these megalithic graves are other, more recent ghosts that recall something more sinister and sad: the Westerbork transition camp. From these gates, more than one hundred thousand Jews – including a Dutch girl called Anne Frank – were deported and executed on their arrival at Auschwitz.
Ironically, Westerbork camp was set up by the Dutch at the outbreak of the war as a haven for German Jews fleeing the rising tide of antisemitism in Germany. The Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940 gave it a more grisly use and Westerbork became the way-station to death. Labelled ‘the ante-rooms to the gates of Hell’, Westerbork was a holding camp where, amid its tough and unpleasant landscape, the inmates were sometimes allowed to go about normal, daily pursuits. Bizarrely juxtaposed against this bleak backdrop devoid of morality, some of the best cabaret performers of Europe were still able to perform – albeit for the benefit of the SS commandants. There was even an orchestra, restaurants, a school and hairdresser: all a malicious trick calculated to foster a false sense of hope for survival.
Unfortunately “The Project”, Ian Buckley’s play inspired by these events, gives us very little sense of the world it is creating. Focusing on the story of dancer Anna Hilmann and her perplexing relationship with the Nazi officer, Conrad Schaffer, Buckley skirts the complexities of the issues with a superficial narrative. There is no perception of the real dangers the characters are in; as Anna dances, quite literally, for her life. And for the lives of her loved ones.
The text comes with a built-in assumption that the audience already know all the historical facts; and with insufficient reference points we struggle to decipher fully where we are; geographically and within the hearts of the protagonists. Rather than add mystery, this merely strips the drama of tension. In other hands this would make for a dreary evening, but the six-strong cast work hard to lift this piece, and they all give extremely watchable performances. Faye Maughan convincingly conveys Anna’s conflicts and compromises that contaminate her hopes for survival. She has the most difficult choices to make, in contrast to her sister Millie’s (played with a wonderful wide-eyed eccentricity by Eloise Jones) dreamy but jerky idealism. Lloyd Morris plays cabaret impresario Victor Gerrin with a real passion, and Mike Duran’s Nazi commandant is a fine study in guarded menace that lies beneath a softer casing.
But, as with all the cast, the weightlessness of the words they are given fail to anchor them in any realism. Tension drifts away as, for example, an escape plan is discussed as though arranging a furtive midnight feast. Their ultimate destinies: the “promise of future horrors”, is forecast like the drudging prospect of too much homework. While the actors attempt to bring these undercurrents to the surface, the scenes themselves just meander into platitudes that fail to explore the full potential of the material.
We are supposed to be concerned with the fate of these people as they ultimately embark on their fatal journey, but instead we merely wonder where this project is going.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Leo Bacica
White Bear Theatre until 23rd March
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: