Maybe it’s the conservative in me when it comes to the theatrical experience, but I like the action to happen on the stage before me. There are some exceptions, as was the case in the Gate Theatre’s production of Festen during last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival. Effective use was made of the entire auditorium at the Cavendish Row venue. The audience were sitting in their seats and felt part of the gripping, harrowing story as it unfolded.
Who by Fire, a story about the holocaust and the childhood experiences of a survivor, engages its audiences as soon as they enter the venue. Making my way down the steps to the bar of the Mill Theatre in Dundrum, I could hear the shouts of the camp soldiers barking out orders to the prisoners.
This was all rehearsed by the actors beforehand, but I remain to be convinced that this preamble of sorts adds anything to a production. The actors are clearly in character, but the audience is not yet in the ‘zone’ – are not emotionally engaged - as they decide whether to have a sparkling Ballygowan or a bottle of Bud.
On entry to the play proper, hands are stamped and another camp guard bellows out instructions that men are to be seated on the left; women on the right. Most of the audience did comply with this request. Interestingly, there was no announcement with regard to fire safety. Instead another loud shriek stated that all Jews are shit and that all mobile phones were to be switched off. We were up and running!
John MacKenna is an award winning playwright and documentary maker. For RTE Radio, he made a number of documentaries with Leonard Cohen. The music of the Canadian ‘poet’ features heavily in this production.
Some of the lines of his famous compositions have been changed (with Cohen’s permission) to suit the narrative here. For example: ‘First we take Manhattan’ is rewritten as ‘First We Take the Reichstag.’
This play with song is narrated by Anna Borowski (McBride), who returns to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1990. She lost her family in the camp. Her memories are still vivid. The young Anna (Maher), her mother (Lyes), the caring Doctor Janiak (Fleming) sought out a better life in Vienna Yet they were among those rounded up for an altogether different life where the smell of death was ever present.
On their arrival, they are forced to strip naked. A scene that was sensitively handled by MacKenna! Indeed, the direction at times was flawless, as highlighted by the tender moments between Lyes and Fleming; the moving rendition of ‘Bird On A Wire’ by Adrian Sullivan as the doomed Charles; and Sarah Maher’s poignant retelling of ‘If It Be Your Will’ as images of burning play out on a back screen.
Unfortunately, this production is thrown off kilter by some bum notes. Charlie Hughes as the supposed evil Commandant, who has designs on Anna’s mother, comes across as a pantomime villain and lacks any sinister edge. Bonnie McCormack as the Doctor, whether intentionally or not, seemed to be playing it for laughs. When asked to recite the words of Cohen, this pair obviously thought they were playing homage to Mel Brooks. Another scene, whereby members of the audience were brought on stage as ‘prisoners,’ looked clumsy. Lined up, this group looked like they were waiting for a bus.
McKenna’s story, whilst not perfect, does strike an emotional chord in dealing with man’s inhumanity to man. This conclusion perhaps prompted the standing ovation the play received at the end. Who knows what reception might have resulted if the tone was more serious throughout and the lyrics of Cohen given the requisite expression.