‘Mother, father. Child, child! Mother, father. Child, child!’ These harrowing lines have been ringing in my ears for some hours now. What should one make of Ghetto? It is a play that leaves you breathless, drawing ghosts from the forgotten depths of inhuman brutality to haunt and distress its audience. But despite this it is somehow a play with several moments of lightness and real humor, though perhaps the audience was a little too nervous to laugh. The combination of this humor and levity with the subject matter, and the surprisingly rare moments when the play plucks upon ones heartstrings, is a difficult one. It is a play for which I cannot find an adequate summation, at times beautiful, at times horrible, always fascinating. The audience left for the interval in somewhat of a stunned silence, only slowly did hushed tones begin to fill the foyer. This is a production that, at its high points, is some of the best drama that I have seen at New Theatre, at it’s low, not bad but a little mediocre. Thankfully these lulls occurred only rarely and did not cause the performance to drag to any great extent.
Ghetto follows the lives of those living in the Jewish Ghetto in Vilna in 1942. It depicts the almost insurmountable struggle to retain a semblance of normality even humanity, to form relationships and conduct business, above all to hold on to life. There are great divisions within the community as three figureheads, Genz (Will Vickers), Weiskopf (Oliver Margolis), and Kruk (Douggie McMeekin) try to preserve and maintain that which is important of their former lives under the strict and morbid rule of Kittles (Florian Göbel). From these four in particular there are some fantastic moments. In order to achieve this feigned normality they create jobs, theatres, libraries and tailor’s workshops, and to varying degrees are forced to cooperate with their German captors.
Upon the tapestry of Angus McRae’s wistful melodies these actors paint a searing picture of defiance through art, defiance through ability, and defiance through comedy. The Dummy (Lauren Grant) is endlessly entertaining as the mischievous side of Srulik’s (Cem Aytacli) character. Grant’s physicality is faultless her delivery always humorous, and the relationship established between her and Göbel is fantastically moving. The constant fear and ragged nerves of the smaller characters is conveyed with credibility, though perhaps the heavy breathing was a touch overdone. The carnal lusts portrayed by the Jewish police are abhorrent to the point of nausea. Paul Wickman, who plays Dessler, in particular should be commended for his unsavory portrayal. In this play Hatty Preston has achieved a real sense of the ruthlessness of life, and of the indignity of imprisonment: nowhere more so than in the opening scene as after the prologue powerfully delivered by Srulik, the Jews of the Ghetto rise from the rags that lie beneath the barbed wire fencing, a constant reminder of the thousands that have already passed and the condition of those who survive.
The major problem that I have with this performance is that the emotional trajectory is not realized completely. The moments of real passion come before the crescendo. For me the stirring moments were the monologues of Gens and Kruk, which unfortunately overshadowed the final sadistic atrocity. I found myself caring more about the internal moral conflict in Gens’ soliloquy which occurs several scenes before. The dramatic darkness did not grow, like some all enveloping thunderstorm, but rather blustered its way through this piece in sudden downpours. This may have been first night nerves, some of the lines that should have carried more weight were lost in flippant delivery. Some of the scenes did not have the pacing necessary to build the wave of emotion. Occasionally background action distracted from the focal point of a scene, and sometimes the piece descended to pantomime villainy. These however are slight blemishes on an otherwise pristene complexion.
This being said there are lines that will wander through the hollows of my mind reverberating for days to come. The Holocaust is one of the few subjects about which ignorance is inexcusable. When people deliver lines such as, ‘Nationalism breeds nationalism.’ or, ‘My culture is my homeland’ with such conviction they cannot help but tug at the very guts of their audience. This material requires such respect and delicacy, that to have delivered anything less than very good would not have been justifiable. I am very pleased to say Preston, cast and crew have delivered a fascinating, visually arresting, and thought provoking piece of work. I would wholeheartedly recommend that anyone should go and see this. With all its flaws it finds humanity in a heartless world.