Wednesday, August 08, 2007

End of Everything Ever

Sometimes my more cynical side can’t help feeling that the Nazis and the Holocaust were two of the best things to happen to the world of entertainment. ‘Entertainment’ is almost certainly the wrong word but there are endless reams of films, books, plays, documentaries, comics and computer games dedicated to our obsession, and it is an obsession, with the actions of a psychotic man with a silly moustache. Not a nanosecond goes by without another film or documentary being churned out about the heroic deeds of our grandparents, the immense suffering of people during that time, or someone being compared to the Nazis. Even having an opinion on music can lead to one being termed a music Nazi. It’s part of the national consciousness.

And with good reason, there’s no question that one of the darkest periods in human history should always be remembered and mourned. I still find the facts and figures impossible to comprehend. Over six million people murdered and countless more who suffered immensely for no other reason than they were born. How do you even begin to understand that pain, to conceptualise the deaths of so many people? Art is the only way for an outsider to look in on these events. It lets people watch and experience the emotions, albeit in an insurmountably distant way, and we do it time and time again in order to try and feel something alien, to mourn and to respect those that unjustifiably died. But with the overload of material it’s sometimes a worrying possibility that desensitisation may set in.

The trouble is that the source material is just too damn good. It’s got everything a good story needs: a clear division between the goodies and the baddies, inspiring acts of heroism, traumatising deeds of evil, a tragic inevitability to the tale that nonetheless ends with the good guys winning, an intensely intriguing villain orchestrating events and, best of all for the story teller, it’s all true. Well, mostly. The stuff that’s worthwhile is almost all taken from real life experiences that lend the whole thing an air of authenticity which makes it that much more powerful. But with the generation who lived through World War II starting to die out and with their stories having being told and retold, perhaps it’s time to start wondering whether another piece on the subject being added to the pile is really necessary or simply an act of morbid fascination.

Case in point: The End of Everything Ever, which is on at the Pleasance Courtyard at 4pm from the 3rd to the 27th August. It follows the journey of Agata, a six year old Jewish girl who is sent away from Berlin by her parents to England in order to escape the rising trouble of the Nazis. As a piece of theatre it’s highly successful. A travelling band of accordions, guitars and voices that make up the family welcome the audience into the theatre, handing out vodka shots and generally being cheery in the way that you imagine these traditional Eastern European families being.

The air of joviality continues, indeed much of the play is spent making comedy out of situations; watching brother, mother, father and grandfather all cram into a single wardrobe as Agata wanders through the house pretending to be a German soldier, or the eccentric home guard who’s missing an arm, make for some particularly funny physical moments that are slick and well executed. As always with a play dealing with these themes, it’s a comedy tinged with sadness; despite laughing you are always acutely aware of the tragedy of the situation. Maintaining a light air with material that has such a serious undertone is much more difficult to pull off than it looks but this cast make it look effortless. They seem to understand that laughter is the most powerful way of bonding the audience with the characters; when you’ve shared a genuine moment of hilarity with a character it makes their inevitable misfortune that much more touching. This point is never overplayed though, the over the top characters and exuberance come from Agata telling the story and seeing events through the eyes of a child who has only a tentative grasp on what’s going on around her, staring wide eyed out at a turbulent world.

The use of an old wooden wardrobe as a central prop also warrants special mention. Through simple little physical changes it transforms from elevator to train to ferry to sleeping shelter and back to wardrobe and is used throughout. It shows how with some thought and imagination a single prop can become and essential story telling tool and watching five people fit perfectly inside a wardrobe will no doubt be one of the enduring images of the Fringe.

There are some problems with the storytelling – the end of Agata’s journey is rushed through with two characters in a few lines describing the nine years that Agata spends at the end of her journey in England and after the time given to the beginning and middle of her exodus it feels that time pressures necessitated a fly-by explanation so that they could get to the emotional climax as soon as possible but due to the effort that went into the rest of the production it’s a minimal problem.

It’s a brilliant show and clearly the company have a firm grasp on what they’re doing. The End of Everything Ever is the final part in a European Narratives trilogy, the first two parts of which are also on this Fringe and cover events in Russia and Hungary during a similar period, so telling the story of the Kindertransport, a Holocaust subject not often touched upon is more justified than most retellings of World War II tales but it would be nice in the future to see such talent focusing on more modern accounts of genocide and displacement that still take place today and in many ways are more deserving of attention than the Holocaust because they make it so painfully obvious how none of the supposed lessons from World War II were ever learnt.

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