The Diary of Anne frank – Sam Thomas and the choice of love over fear. (Theatre Review)
The Diary of Anne Frank
New Theatre 9 June – 11 July
In her notes to this production of The Diary of Anne Frank currently playing at The New Theatre in Newtown, Sam Thomas writes: “Sadly, the play’s underlying themes of discrimination, intolerance and the scapegoating of minorities are as relevant today as they were seventy years ago. Around the world, innocent people are still imprisoned, tortured, beaten and murdered because of their religion, race, sexuality and gender.” However the holocaust, when labeled the worst crime in history, actually becomes a symbol of the worst we can achieve and equally vow never to repeat. This statement acts as much as a threat as a promise, one which implies nothing that has been done – particularly in the third world since – is as bad as that terrible event.
The paradox of the holocaust is the sacrilege in using it as a comparison to any other event, as we see occasionally in our newspapers. If you compare some petty disgrace to the holocaust as a symbol of the depths of our own evil, you are labeled insensitive and ignorant. If you think the Islamic protests over the Danish cartoons depicting Mohamed were a little extreme (and they were) then remember David Irving was sitting in an Austrian prison for expressing his doubts about the holocaust in an article published fifteen years earlier, and was then condemned to three years of prison – so it is prohibited to doubt the holocaust in our liberal societies. Freedom of speech is always conditional.
Even more than that, when those cartoon images were published, some in the Islamic communities chose to publish their own offensive material (in a strange retaliation that implied “how do you like it” rather than their claim which was some symbols should be allowed to remain sacred) which included Anne Frank as the ultimate symbol in liberal societies of the pure and innocent victim. Anne Frank has always been our favourite holocaust victim, because she is female, young, vulnerable, intelligent and most important of all, a virgin. She is as blameless as a person can be, and she wrote her innocence into a diary which became a talisman for the stupidity of Nazism. How can they fear this girl-child so much that they will need to murder her?
So what does Sam Thomas mean when she asks us to notice that these very serious crimes that have become the cornerstone of contention in our society (after all, the state of Israel and the subsequent problems in its relationship to Palestine are part of the West’s compensation package to Israel for what Jews had to suffer) yet are elevated to the symbol of the absolute worst a human can be, are being perpetrated today?
The answer to this lies in the beauty of The Diary of Anne Frank as a theatrical production. Theatre, in its immediacy and intimacy, partly demystifies the purity of the victim. Anne may exist beyond reproach, but certainly Mr Van Daan (Geoff Sirmai) is the very essence of flawed humanity. A man only partly good and mostly bad, his selfishness becomes such a source of irritation, that he turns the bulk of his very small community against him to the point that Mrs Frank (Jodine Muir) wants him expelled from their safe haven, effectively condemning him to death at the hands of the Nazis. What is this conflict but a watered down version of what the Nazis were doing outside their door anyway? When Sam Thomas asks us to consider the way we treat others today as we watch this most famous of blameless symbols playing itself out, is she not suggesting that what lay at the root of the holocaust is a condition in our own hearts that we each must recognise and sublimate as a daily task? When Geoff Sirmai sits and cries in front of his fellow cast (and of course, the audience) he is fully defeated, forced to confront his worst that is no longer hidden. In many ways, through Sirmai’s performance and Thomas’ direction, we serve ourselves best intellectually to empathise and recognise the Mr Van Daan inside.
It is this distinct opportunity that Sam Thomas and her creatives open up for us in the current production of The Diary of Anne Frank. It is not the Nazi crime that is under scrutiny here, is the innocent victim. Through her diary, Anne reveals the very ordinary life of the victim, and through the drawn out drama of the attic existence, the play reveals the contradictions at the heart of the violence perpetrated against them. The fear they live in is real, the fear of their enemies is not. The question for contemporary Australian society is, when very ordinary people live with this sort of fear, what false fear is dominating them from outside?
This opportunity to reflect is highlighted by the deceptively light nature of the text and the beauty of Justina Ward’s performance. She is a joyful, easy-hearted Anne, aware of the dangers around her, yet playfully optimistic as we easily sense any child would be. Her natural optimism is reflected in the protective goodness of her father, powerfully portrayed by James Bean, who very successfully straddles the twin paths of wisdom and the protectionist masculinity Mr Frank felt for his wife and daughters. The group in the attic grows as Miep (Rowena McNicol) and Mr Kraler (Martin Searles) try to save more lives, becoming a claustrophobic bunch, determined to preserve their secret and yet under enormous Freudian pressure to break it through accident. It seems inevitable that the group will be discovered. After all, they worked so hard to conceal themselves and the world is so desperate. The audience senses this, while becoming deeply immersed in the irrational hope that perhaps this time, the small group will be saved.
Sam Thomas has brought something very special to life in this current production of The Diary Of Anne Frank. This is more than a “story” of a young girl intended to bring us closer to the problem of the holocaust. This production reaches past all that and strikes at the heart of what it is to fear and love together and to choose love in the moment when our fear rises up. When watching this production, one feels compelled to reach beyond loving your neighbour as yourself. It suggests rather, that you reach past yourself, and love your neighbour anyway. Simply because that’s a superior choice.