During last month's Edinburgh Fringe, a piece entitled Crucifixion drew shocked plaudits for its unremittingly violent evocation of the horrors of the Holocaust: little drama or narrative, just torture. It was, one can now see, a lineal descendant of Pip Simmons' An die Musik, revived 25 years on at the Tricycle with a cast of nine from the Jewish State Theatre of Bucharest.
Simmons' 75-minute work, though, heightens the horror by its juxtaposition of everyday torments and degradations in an unspecified concentration camp with passages of "culture". At one moment a brutal "exercise" regime is plainly intended only to offer further opportunities to humiliate the KZ inmates, who are repeatedly drenched with bucketfuls of foul water; at the next, a grotesquely wracked dance to a passage from Tannhäuser or a recital of Shylock's "Many a time and oft..." speech are interrupted by exactly the same kind of depredations from the guard. A ragged band plays the Ode To Joy, or the Schubert Lied which gives the piece its title. The proceedings begin with a bizarre, unsettling "operetta" about Anne Frank, with the guard orchestrating the action.
Simmons' intention, in 1975 as now, was "an attempt to respond to the sentimental way in which the theatre and other art forms have tried to deal with an unimaginable historical reality... a primitive and deliberately shocking confrontation with the impossibility for the arts to come up with anything meaningful about the holocaust." There is no narrative, no thematic content (although now and again a passage from the likes of Anne Frank or Bruno Bettelheim is recited to give a momentary sidelight), simply a portrayal of relentless inhumanity.
At one point the guard addresses the audience directly, making it plain that our role is to bear witness to the final, terminal subjugation of these alleged Untermenschen. We accept our role: after the inmates have meekly undressed for "shower and delousing", stacked their uniforms and arranged their shoes in rows and stood playing music as the gas billows around them, there is at most a brief, isolated attempt at applause, soon smothered by the appalled silence. This is, in many ways, the opposite of a theatrical transaction: rather than our complicity, it relies upon greater passivity on our part than any other kind of stage presentation. Yet although in this respect it is more artificial than almost all other theatre, its unmediated presentation of atrocity achieves what it sets out to do... as far as it goes.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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