Discussions of Holocaust drama can engender a vague feeling of impropriety, as if the subject matter placed the play in question beyond criticism. However, there is more to the genre than ideological and moral button-pressing. Sonja Lyndon's The Strange Passenger, presented by Paines Plough, attempts to circumvent the monochrome clichés of the topic, in which inmates of concentration camps are either martyrs, vile collaborators or struggling between those two poles, but Lyndon takes her play on a circuitous metaphysical route which arrives back close to that starting-point.
Her subject is the detention of Czech composer Viktor Ullmann (Andrew Normington) in Theresienstadt, which combined the horrors of a KZ with the bizarrerie of a Nazi propaganda facade: a "settlement" in which, whilst assigned on the brutal work details and given the pitifully inadequate rations of other camps, the Jewish detainees were encouraged to engage in a rich cultural programme of lectures and concerts. In such a climate, Ullmann overcame the artistic block which had led him to spend the previous three years working for the Rudolf Steiner movement, and composed his opera The Emperor Of Atlantis.
Lyndon's Viktor finds himself torn between opposing principles, primarily expressed in the conflict between Heinrich the idealistic champion of art for art's sake and the cynical materialist Heino (both played by Peter Hamilton Dyer). But although Heino is openly materialistic, he may not in fact be material; certainly his opposite number Heinrich seems to be a figment of Ullmann's imagination. These two are, Lyndon explains, personifications of the spirits of Lucifer and Ahriman from Steiner's Anthroposophical writings, representing the forces of escapism and of this world respectively, not unlike Faustus's Good and Evil Angels.
This cosmic dualism is mirrored in Viktor's personal dealings in the camp with his infuriated but realistic second wife Annie and her impractical, self-obsessed successor Elli. The end result is a theological fable in which Viktor Ullmann's historical existence is overshadowed by his mystical status as an Everyman who happens to be a composer in a concentration camp, and those around him take on the quality of abstract functions rather than people. The seal is set on this interpretation when Julia Marsen steps away from the cello on which she has accompanied much of the action and takes on the persona of the Strange Passenger for a dialogue with Viktor (including explicit echoes of the character's source in Peer Gynt) in which she symbolises his approaching death.
Director Penny Ciniewicz chooses not to play up the metaphysics of the work, but they cannot help pushing their way to the fore. Lyndon has made a considered attempt to move away from the usual run of KZ drama, but her treatment of the story of Viktor Ullmann both leads her inexorably back to the central dualities and has the effect of interposing a cerebral veil in front of the deformed reality of Theresienstadt.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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