Take care of those you call your own
And keep good company
A Night At The Opera – Queen
For those captured by the Schutzstaffel (SS) during the Second World War, they were often made to make impossible choices that would haunt them for the remainer of their lives. If you knew that your only way of surviving was to leave your family – would you… could you bring yourselves to do that? Written by Ian Buckley and directed by Adrian Shrubsall, The Project examines a seldom-explored chapter of Dutch history. While most people are aware of concentration camps such as Auschwitz, they are less likely to know about the other ‘interim’ camps which had less severe conditions. One of these was Westerbork Transit Camp in North Holland.
At the heart of story is a family – three Jewish women who make every effort to look after each other. The mother, Ette Hilmann (Cate Morris) is ill and resides in the camp’s hospital. However, because of the ‘overabundance’ of the infirm there, Ette’s been put on the ‘Tuesday list’ for Jewish people sent by trains to travel east… Her daughters Anna (Faye Maughan) and Millie (Eloise Jones) are horrified at the news and resolve to guarantee her safety.
Conrad Schaffer (Mike Duran) – the German officer in charge of the camp – is a big fan of cabaret. Knowing this, Victor Gerrin (Lloyd Morris) – one of the Jewish ‘residents’ – organises regular cabaret evenings, which the rest of the Jewish community participate in. There is, however, one person that Schaffer admires – Anna – and her dancing may be the key to keeping all in Schaffer’s good graces…
One of the questions that’s asked throughough the play is the ‘value’ and ‘practicality’ of communal co-operation versus self-interest in extreme circumstances. With hindsight, we as the audience know what lies ahead for residents of the camp. However, at this point in time, what was happening ‘in the east’ were only ‘rumours’. This uncertainty, without tangibility of ‘facts’, drives the tension in the play and the choices the characters make.
For Anna and Millie, their overriding desire is to keep their mother safe, while for Victor he thinks of the girls as his own daughters. Peter (Nick Delvallé) is in a different position in that the only emotional tether he has in the camp is to his ‘girlfriend’ Anna. But Anna’s love for her family and her desire to keep them safe overrides any feelings she has for him personally. Besides, any attempts to escape will automatically lead to loved ones and associates automatically ‘sent east’. But if it’s going to happen sooner or later, is it wrong to think of escaping?
Jones brings a ‘nervous’ physicality to the performance, exhibiting the character’s natural tendency to exhibit everything she’s feeling. Maughan’s Anna is more circumspect, but then apart from having to show a ‘different face’ to Schaffer, she can’t reciprocate the same sort and intensity of love that Peter feels for her.
As the ‘loners’, Schaffer and Peter have probably more in common they would like to admit – both willing to make sacrifices for Anna, on the assumption that her feelings are genuine. But if they’re not… personal feelings must be set aside…
The Project highlights the emotional cost that war places on people and the malleability of relationships under such circumstances. But if anyone thinks that they would never let anyone down in the same situation, it is Anna who says with authority that “You don’t know what you would really do, until you have to make the choice yourself.”
© Michael Davis 2019
The Project runs at the White Bear Theatre until 23rd March.