This play is nothing if not authentic. The writer, Charlotte Delbo, survived the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and returned to her native France in 1945 to “raise the past from its ashes, to carry the word”.
Rarely do you see a cast of 15 women on a London stage, and that fact alone packs an emotional punch as we witness scenes of unusual degradation and horror in an all-female environment. In this context death can be a welcome friend and the daily routine becomes a matter of almost literally holding oneself together. Who will be the next to go? Who will crack under the strain and commit suicide on the electrified barbed wire rather than face the appalling option of becoming a “whitecap” and burning babies alive?
There is no doubting the play’s sincerity. It is harrowing, passionate and honest. But as drama it is dangerously close to being a one-note affair and is ultimately overcome by the nobility of its own purpose. The women endure the most terrifying, brutal regime, and are presumably of varying ages, yet they all look like well-groomed, neatly dressed and (sorry to say it) rather attractive undergraduates. One accepts the uniformity of their condition, but at the same time one is too conscious of the fact that real experiences are being twisted into semi-naturalistic dialogue, with the result that there is little variation in tone or character.
Esin Harvey, Jen Holt and Rosa Hoskins carry the bulk of the play’s message – and message-carrying is clearly the writer’s intention – but this is essentially an ensemble piece. The forced labour in sub-zero conditions is powerfully evoked, as is the bond between the women, and director Natasha Pryce focuses, rightly, on the humanity that prevails in the most inhuman of predicaments.
As the writer herself survived to tell the tale – and thereby give meaning to the countless lives that were lost – there is a heartening overtone to the evening. We come away with a clear understanding of the writer’s purpose, but also with the feeling that we have witnessed a catalogue of atrocity and deprivation that sounds too often, too literally, like a catalogue, and too little like the well-sculpted, suspenseful drama that it promises to be. The message most certainly comes to life, but the characters emerge only in fits and starts.