Jeff Rawle rises from amid the audience squatting on the floor of the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs and begins the opening monologue of Juan Mayorga's 100-minute piece. "Way to heaven" was the nickname for the ramp which led from the railway platform to the "infirmary" at an unnamed Nazi concentration camp. Rawle's character was, he recalls, a Red Cross observer/inspector who paid an unannounced visit there in 1942. What he saw was an artificial model Jewish community, but not so unnatural as to hint at the atrocities behind it. He wrote a non-committal report, we are told.
So far, so unexceptional a Holocaust play: a few suspicious notes, but unspecific in the unease they evoke as we see the scenarios described by the observer: two boys arguing over a spinning top, a girl with her doll, a couple on a bench... But the scenes are played out again and again. The boys stop and restart their scene because the blocking is wrong; the man on the bench continues speaking to the woman even after she has gone (eventually she is replaced, and the dialogue goes on).
The illusion is shockingly comprehensive: this entire community has been set up, cast, scripted and directed for just such a visit. Berlin does not know when or from whom it will come, but knows it will: until then, inmates are horrifically drilled in their deception, their only incentive the sickening comfort that "As long as we're here, we're not on that train." Even Dominic Rowan's chilling commandant has written his own urbane man-of-culture speech, and compels the Jews' "mayor" to direct his delivery of it. At one point, an old anecdote about Harold Pinter – "What's the difference between 'pause' and 'silence'?" – is alluded to, both comical and as stark as that writer's most confrontational political work.
Not unlike the cultural fig-leaf of Theresienstadt, Mayorga's vision is of Jewish victims forced to collude not just in their own extermination but in its systematic, mendacious concealment. Ramin Gray's excellent production utilises a striking design by Miriam Büther which begins with evening light pouring in through the theatre's own windows until they are shuttered off, creating a space like one of the camp huts. It is to our shame that the enormity of the Holocaust requires periodic refreshment, but this provides a brilliantly, unsettlingly fresh angle on it.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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