Writer and Director: Nathalie Bazán
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
We are in Auschwitz. Crushed people stagger by, trying to survive its horrors. In the centre, two young Jews seek solace together: Anya from Poland and Nikolai from Hungary. They seem ready to give up but are determined that they should tell us their story, the sum of their experiences that has led them to this corner of occupied Poland. And so their stories are told to us in flashback, detailing their lives before and after capture. Lying Lips Theatre’s Kanada is not for the faint-hearted; it is not a dry dissection of facts – although we are presented with them too. No: we see the full brutality of the experiences of our young protagonists as well as the contrasting experiences of their German captors. There is no room for happy endings in Auschwitz.
Anya is the daughter of Aleksandra, an English teacher in Poland. They have false papers given to them by the priest: we are told that many Jews survived day-to-day using such papers, denying their heritage in order to remain at large. But the occupying army smell a rat and they are exposed and sent to Auschwitz. We never see Aleksandra again as she is sent ‘to the left’.
Nikolai lives with his father, a mute, before his capture. They became separated and, unknown to Nikolai, his father is casually murdered by a German officer simply because he cannot speak and is therefore ‘useless’ – despite having papers entirely in order. Nikolai refuses to believe his father can be dead and continues to search for him, even scanning the faces of new arrivals to Auschwitz. He is befriended by Anya and together they end up working Kanada: the area that recycles the possessions of arriving Jews after they have been to the gas chambers and crematoria. The sale of such goods, including clothing and jewellery, funds a huge amount of the German war machine. They live day-to-day, united both in anger at their fates and the determination to tell us about it.
Writer and Director Nathalie Bazán tells their story in a sequence of short, almost filmic, episodes. The casual brutality the Jews suffer is powerfully presented, its brutality emphasised by the intimate nature of the Old Joint Stock Theatre. That is contrasted by the triumphalism of the German officers and their attitudes to Jewry, clearly considering them subhuman and treating them as such. The whole is uncompromising as it tells a story of man’s inhumanity to man: more than once, Anya cries out, in response to ‘Where is God?’, ‘Where is Man?’
Interspersed with these very uncomfortable scenes are those where the cast slip out of character to give a commentary on the Final Solution. Numbers so large they defy comprehension are cast before us, spelling out the scope of the horror: for example, we are told that if we stood in silence for one minute for each victim, then we would be silent for eleven and a half years. However, what work best are the small, human-scale scenes, the scenes of day-to-day brutality, misery, death – and of conspicuous consumption by the gaolers. The numbers, shocking as they are, are just too big to register.
Rhiannon Skerritt and Liam Wadsworth bring us Anya and Nikolai. Through their movements and speech, they help us to feel their pain and fears, as well as the decisions they make. The rest of the cast play multiple parts, shifting from downtrodden jew to jingoistic Nazi with ease. Alan Booth’s Hans Rust is chilling in Auschwitz, while John Cleaver and Angus Villiers-Stuart support him effectively. Femke Witney brings humanity to Aleksandra, while Eleanor Walker excels in in her scenes with Anya.
The first half is a triumph, ending as Anya and Aleksandra arrive at Auschwitz and are processed: a disturbing dénouement that leaves this audience in silent contemplation as the houselights go up. The second half, however, is maybe a touch overlong as we live the horror of Auschwitz and learn of the scale and context: it’s the human stories that are most effective and they could easily stand alone without further narrative comment.
Nevertheless, this is a powerful piece that reminds us of the past. As Anya points out, what has happened before can happen again; it is perhaps only by confronting these horrors full-on that we comprehend and remember them.
An uncomfortable and draining watch, but ultimately worthwhile.
Runs until 10 February 2018 | Image: Charles Flint Photography