The difficulty of dramatising the gas chambers

By John Nathan, October 7, 2013
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Clive Mendus and Gillian Wright  in a segment of Steven Berkoff’s Religion and Anarchy

Clive Mendus and Gillian Wright in a segment of Steven Berkoff’s Religion and Anarchy

Religion and Anarchy
Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1

Hysteria
Hampstead Theatre, London NW3

I have never been one of those who think the Holocaust should not be depicted on stage or film. Whether the primary purpose of a play or movie is to inform, warn against the depraved depths to which people and their dogmas sink, or even to entertain, the Shoah is a legitimate theme.

But without realising it, I think I must have come to the view that there is one element of the Holocaust that it is not possible to depict without in some way diminishing the horror of it. And that element is the gas chamber. And by strange coincidence, the gas chamber and its gasping Jewish occupants haunt two works currently on the London stage.

In Steven Berkoff’s quintet of playlets, which the author co-directs with Max Barton, the theme is antisemitism of a particularly British kind. Berkoff draws a persuasive connection between the first work, How to Train an Antisemite, and the last, titled Gas. It reveals how opinions expressed in the privacy of the home are linked to state-controlled atrocities beyond its walls.

Religion and Anarchy is an evening informed by Berkoff’s unmistakable theatrical voice, with exaggerated gesticulation and deliberate use of stereotype. But from the Tottenham white-trashy couple who sit at their kitchen table discussing Jewish conspiracy, to the last word in mass murder, Berkoff’s methods come across here as an awfully blunt instrument with which to attack what Barton himself describes in the programme as the insidious form of antisemitism that exists in this country. Something more subtle is required.

The final play depicts men writhing in gas-induced agony as they express their final despairing utterances — part prayer and part curse on their persecutors.

Berkoff’s nightmares are similar to my own, and probably those of every other Jew. But attempting to realise on stage something that only those trapped in the chambers can know sufficiently to express seems to me an exercise doomed to failure.

My own haunted image of the gas chamber is of the human pyramid of bodies that I learned often greeted those whose job it was to clear the chambers for the next batch of victims. It’s a shape that to my mind implies a blind, desperate panic in which hardly a sentence has time to form in the mind, let alone a conversation such as the one that is had, albeit in agonised form, in Berkoff’s vision.

I had similar reservations about the chamber in Terry Johnson’s revival of his own brilliant play at the Hampstead. It here contains the three sisters that Sigmund Freud, played by a terrifically on-form Antony Sher, left behind when he escaped Vienna and moved to London. But by the time the scene comes, we are not only clear that we are watching the hitherto farcically funny and deadly serious goings-on in Freud’s study, but also the content of his mind.

Johnson imagines the real-life encounter between the now dying Freud and the young Spanish surrealist Dali (Adrian Schiller). It’s a work whose every seemingly ridiculous turn is rooted in reality — from the West End farce which Freud is known to have watched around that time, to his theory that hysteria is caused by paternal sexual abuse.

A mysterious girl invades both Freud’s mental and physical inner sanctum. Her objective is to force him to revisit the theory he later abandoned. She has good reason to think it is true.

Sher somehow manages to maintain a convincing gravitas even when caught red-handed removing the trousers of an unconscious Dali. Schiller lisps his way through the role of the Spanish genius, informing every one of Dali’s pompous and self-aggrandising statements with a winning sincerity. And Lydia Wilson is terrific as the girl,
Jessica, plying a line between kooky and seriously disturbed.

When, in a moment of astonishing stagecraft and bravura, that final image of the chamber arrives, it’s clear that Johnson has every right to assume that it haunted Freud. For that reason the director gets away with it. But only just.

Last updated: 12:22pm, October 7 2013