Olga Benario was a German Jewish communist who undertook daring missions for her cause, including springing her lover and fellow German communist Otto Braun from jail. After being given military training by the Soviets,
Benario was involved a plot to return the exiled Brazilian revolutionary Luis Carlos Prestes to his country. She was arrested by Brazilian police, handed over to the Gestapo and gave birth to Prestes’s child while in prison. She was deported to Germany, imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp and was then transferred to Bernburg Euthanasia Centre, where she was gassed in 1942.
It is a story that inspired German dramatist Dea Loher to write her first play and this powerful UK premiere of the work by theatre company Speaking in Tongues will remain a long time in the mind.
Loher sets all the action in the various cells in which Olga, played by Bethan Clark, was incarcerated. And, with a bit of augmenting by designer Matt Sykes-Hooban, the rooms are well evoked by the subterranean bare brick cellar of the Arcola’s studio space.
However, the lion’s share of the play is located in the Brazilian jail where her interrogator is the second of Loher’s real-life characters, pro-Nazi Brazilian army officer Filinto Müller, played by a sinister Pete Collis.
You can see what drew Loher to her subject. For a start, Benario’s story is amazing. Being a Jewish freedom fighter and a communist doubly qualified her for Nazi persecution, which, according to Loher’s version of events, is partly why Müller went about his job with such revolting relish.
But in terms of storytelling, Loher shackles her play – which has been lucidly translated by David Tushingham — to the prisons in which her heroine was tormented and abused. And so much of the information about this fascinating life is necessarily delivered with dour soliloquies or through declamatory exchanges during which Olga tells her 17-year-old cellmate Genna about life on the outside as a revolutionary.
So the play in large part becomes a harrowing study on the psychology of survival. And for drama, Loher none-too convincingly imagines Olga using her superior intelligence to turn the tables on Müller and elicit a confession that reveals his sadism.
Harder evidence is delivered when Olga’s and Genna’s new cellmate Ana (Ceridwen Smith) leaves the cell in the fetching red dress she was wearing when arrested, and returns a shuffling, bloodied wreck, with hair shorn and mind traumatised by Müller’s attentions. It is harrowing and distressing stuff that left some of the audience in tears.
Samuel Miller’s fine production is powered by a hugely committed cast, but rather like Olga’s fellow inmate Genna, we are left to imagine the intrigue, tension and drama that clearly characterised much of Benario’s life on the outside. The impression remains that if someone one day writes a really good play about this woman, the outside is where it will largely be set. (Tel: 020 7503 1646)