Titled in the German tongue, Diane Samuel’s play Kindertransport literally translates as ‘children transport’, making explicit reference to one of the most overlooked events to occur before and during the Second World War. This adaptation, directed by Fiona Buffini, reinforces the emotional element to the memory of this organised rescue effort that saved the lives of thousands of children from Nazi persecution. Buffini achieves this by foregrounding the psychological trauma that embedded itself within the minds of these children through the innovative set design, excellent casting, lighting and use of stage space, all of which combined caused an eruption of cheers and applause from the audience.
“Young Eva struggles to grapple with her new future”
Madeleine Girling’s set design fantastically allows for the play’s two juxtaposing timelines to emerge. It’s an overpoweringly large, chaotic attic that is filled with forgotten furniture, books and photographs that most significantly surround a lone bed. Since the play starts with Jenny Walser’s Eva and Rebecca D’Souza’s portrayal of the German mother Helga sitting on this bed, it becomes clear that it is the signifier of 1930s Germany. Simultaneously Elena Breschi as Faith and Cate Hamer as Evelyn (the adult Eva) appear through a trapdoor, and later on emerge from among the boxes, the set speaks volumes of how those living in 1980s England have been and still are defined by past. Indeed, this set design makes it increasingly obvious as the play goes on that this adaptation is about memories and its painful consequences, as young Eva struggles to grapple with her new future whilst Evelyn is uncomfortably forced to acknowledge her past.
“Walser plays 9 year old Eva with a charm and personality that immediately evokes sympathy from the audience”
In many ways the play transcends itself from being simply a story about immigration to questioning ideas surrounding identity. Being encircled by boxes and as a cast of four women, the characters in the play are eternally drawn together, meaning that both Germany and England have unavoidably played a part in shaping Eva/Evelyn’s identity.
This is made possible by the excellent casting of Jenny Walser. Walser plays 9 year old Eva with a charm and personality that immediately evokes sympathy from the audience as she adopts the nervous and constant body movement often found in youngsters. This realism is comically drawn out by her first encounter with Lil, her English guardian who is played by the comical Denise Black, who’s Mancunian dialect fails to communicate with Walser’s perfectly sounding German. Of course this caused a sparkle of laughter from the audience as it conveyed what we have all felt before – the impossibility of successfully communicating and belonging when there’s a language barrier.
As the play jumps several years into the future, Walser is able to demonstrate the change in the way Eva identifies herself. Not only has she now changed her name to Evelyn and adopted a stereotypical British accent and poised mannerisms, but she had visually changed. She is no longer wearing the green school-girl looking dress her mother sent her away in but has dressed herself in the well-known 1930s English style. She is now undoubtedly English and yet this form of survival has caused psychological trauma in the shape of guilt for Eva/Evelyn.
“Her survival has almost become an oppressive force”
We learn that her birth mother survived the war and came to Manchester in the hope of taking Eva to New York. However, Evelyn reveals that young Eva refused to leave and as a result of this difficult choice Eva/Evelyn began to think of Helga and The Ratcatcher as being one in the same. The Ratcatcher, a haunting presence dressed in all black, with white long nails and a ghost-like facial appearance is a figment from Eva’s childhood fairy tales. By equating her mother as the Ratcatcher, she is suggesting that the memory of her mother overrides feelings of gratitude for surviving the war and magnifies Eva/Evelyn’s guilt at changing her name and abandoning her German identity. This implies that her survival has almost become an oppressive force that has sparked her psychological suffering.
The effect of spotlighting the Ratcatcher further resurrects feelings of fear, not only for Eva/Evelyn, but also for the audience. The jarring, electronic music, the spotlight and the directorial decision to always have the shadowy Ratcatcher standing on higher ground to Eva/Evelyn visually highlights his control over her. This is most prevalent in the ending of the play, as an emotionally distressed Evelyn prepares to leave the attic when the terrifying Ratcatcher appears looming over her. It becomes quite obvious in the silent auditorium that the ghosts and memories that haunt Evelyn’s mind will never be banished.
“The production combined the stage space with brilliant acting”
The only weakness I found was the play’s failure to make connections to our current political situation. Since there are uncanny comparisons to the political chaos ensuing under President Trump’s dictatorship and the racist outbursts across the United Kingdom after the Brexit Referendum, I couldn’t understand why the important messages of the play weren’t being used as a warning to us all. However, this is only personal preference and I would still recommend Kindertransport as a play worth seeing. The production combined the stage space with brilliant acting in order to generate raw emotions that were undercut just at the right moment by its comedy and wit.
Featured image courtesy of Nottingham Playhouse Facebook Page.