Ghetto

It is no extra-curricular activity to put on a play about the Holocaust. Disappointingly, frustratingly, Ghetto seems to have been treated as little more than that. A play by Joshua Sobol based on the diaries of Jewish inmates at the Vilna Ghetto in Reichskommissariat (now the independent Baltic states), Ghetto tells the bleak story of a group of Jews’ ill-fated attempt to put on a play for the SS commander in charge.

As we get involved in little unfolding plotlines, the teleological narrative that dominates the play marches miserably towards an inevitable conclusion. First performed in 1989, the play’s premiere was important for rupturing art’s silence over the Holocaust. ‘No theatre in a graveyard’ is its ironic, self-effacing motto. It is almost insulting when these words appear in The Theatre School of Tunbridge Wells’ production, written in red felt-tip and sellotaped clumsily to the back hanging of the stage.

If their set left something to be desired (as in, there wasn’t a set) then so did their acting. There was no gravity in any of their performances and it was this, more than anything, that let the whole show down. Sobols’ text is descriptive enough to stand alone without a set, but it is also knotty and needs careful delivery. In the basement at Greenside it felt like we were indulging some children’s class play, instead of watching the work of a theatre school.

The SS commander was played by a girl who did not even grace us with the basic clenched jaw and heavy footsteps that would have done something to transform her into a threat - and it is not as though the production was deliberately asserting the genderlessness of faceless Nazi hordes. There were gestures that which indicated the girl was trying to suspend our disbelief in her masculinity (her hair was tied up, her hand covered her crotch), but she did nothing to her voice that was just as soft and gentle as after the show.

The girl who played the chief of police Jacob Gens was a bit better, occasionally shouting and thus providing a little emotion to supplant what was otherwise the empty motion of going through the steps of their performance with only a handful of stumbles - a wrong stage exit; a few lines forgotten and re-remembered. Yet there was something hugely unsatisfying about being able to identify in the boring symbolism of a hung head that an actor must have been told: ‘you are a Jewish man. They were cold and scared: Show me cold and scared’. And really there ought not to have been even a few stumbles.

The show was much like my notebook: blank, narrow and shaded. But my notebook would never dream of trying to act. Perhaps with some work the theatre school could successfully put on a less difficult play. As it stands they just about toed the line beyond which audiences walk out in objection. That we sat through it is most likely due to our recognition that it stuck to the rules: there should be no art in a graveyard and there was certainly no art in this.

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The Blurb

Set in the Jewish ghetto of Vilna, Lithuania, 1942, and based on diaries from the darkest days of the Holocaust. Ghetto tells of the unlikely flourishing of a theatre as the Nazis began their policy of mass extermination.

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