Reviewed by James Karas
“Human kind cannot bear very much reality” wrote T. S. Eliot and the statement holds true about many situations and most forcefully perhaps about the Holocaust. It is not just unbearable; it is simply beyond comprehension.
The Stratford Festival is not shying away from the subject and has produced the harrowing story of Anne Frank in a production presumably aimed at children. The Diary of Anne Frank is part of the Schulich Children’s Plays. No one can doubt, however, that the powerful story about the young girl who kept a diary while hiding from the Nazis and perished in one of the Third Reich’s concentration camps is a play for everyone.
Members of the company in The Diary of Anne Frank. Photography by David Hou.
The play begins with seventeen actors lined up across the stage at the Avon Theatre. Each introduces himself/herself and tells a pointed or humorous story. Some of them represent the characters in the play while others form the “Chorus”, the actors who read brief entries of the diary.
All the actors wear beige, almost identical clothes. The set is panelled with light brown panes and looks like a box. In this attic eight people are hidden and they live in terror of being discovered. For example, they must be deathly quiet during the day when a business is operating below. There is also shortage of food, tension and hope, hope that the war will be over and they can return home.
Anne (Sara Farb) is lively teenager who argues with her mother, adores her father and is growing up emotionally and physically. Farb gives us a highly sympathetic young girl who is full of life and ambition and lives in a nightmarish situation.
Her father Otto is a man of wisdom, patience and love as he tries to maintain peace and tolerance in an almost impossible situation. Joseph Ziegler does an outstanding job in the role.
His wife (played by Lucy Peacock) is a decent woman who has her limitations. She has to deal with Anne and her older daughter Margot (Shannon Taylor) as well as the van Daans, (Kevin Bundy and Yanna McIntosh). Mrs. van Daan is attached to her fur coat and Mr. van Daan resorts to stealing bread.
The diary is a simple story. Eight people hiding and facing their virtues and vices in the face of serious deprivations. But that is just the surface, we know that they are all facing ultimate evil and want desperately to escape from it. We know that they will not and near the end we get a passing description of their fate. Otto Frank survived the concentration camp and later found Anne’s diary.
The ultimate evil that they faced is beyond comprehension and it is the type of reality that Eliot had in mind when he penned the above-noted words.
Director Jillian Keiley gives an understated and sensitive production of a situation that screams with implicit horror. The actors who speak directly to the audience at the beginning of the performance and the actors who read from the diary, the Chorus, are a way of giving us some distance from the story. This is the Brechtian idea of epic theatre where we are told a story rather than being led to believe that we are watching an enactment of reality.
A painful encounter with reality and a great night at the theatre.
The Diary of Anne Frank by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, adapted by Wendy Kesselmam, opened on May 28 and will run in repertory until October 10, 2015 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca