Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Review: 'The Escape Act: A Holocaust Memoir' at Jacksons Lane Arts Centre, 24th September 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Last night Stav Meishar taught me that, despite the show's title, you cannot escape the Holocaust. Her one-woman show, The Escape Act: A Holocaust Memoir tells the true story of Irene Danner, a German Jew who survived the Nazi regime under the protection of the Althoff Circus. Living under forged papers obtained at great expense, Danner avoided the gas chambers and death camps, but here we see how living as a Jew during the Nazi regime  - even under an assumed Aryan identity - puts your sense of self in bondage.

Danner's story is complimented throughout the show by Meishar's own. Her own ancestry is dim, full of elderly relatives who went to their graves never having revealed their experiences under the Nazis. She repeatedly brandishes a test tube of saliva, explaining that a DNA test reveals that she's an Eastern European Jew, and that's about all she can find out

The Escape Act contrasts Danner and Meishar's story, with Danner struggling under the weight of her family legacy and Jewishness and Meishar trying to fill the vacuum of a frustrating blank spot in her personal identity.

It also neatly contrasts the light-hearted entertainment of the circus with the horror of the Holocaust. Most Holocaust stories naturally and understandably tend towards drab, washed-out colours and decrepit environments - something that's difficult to avoid when you're dealing about ghettos and death camps. But The Escape Act is a show of bright circus shades, charming puppets and glittering sequined capes. But this vibrance doesn't distract from the reality and brutality of Irene Danner's experiences.

A highlight is a truly brutal recounting of her giving birth in a Nazi hospital while being denied anaesthesia. Meishar tells this tale while on the trapeze, contorting her body around the ropes in a way that makes the excruciating pain palpable. It ends with her falling to the stage with a short, sharp stop - a piece of physical punctuation that sends shudders of sympathy through the entire audience.

There's also a lot of impressive stagecraft that's gone into staging the story. Parts of the story are set in the Danner family's home. Here the family members are represented by small cardboard props, with the room itself popping up from inside a large suitcase. It's an intricate and clever bit of design (though perhaps a bit too intricate for the back rows) - and obviously, the beaten-up suitcase carries strong imagery of the heaps of discarded cases at the Auschwitz museum.

But clever bits of stage design aside, the centre of the show is always Meishar: who literally throws herself into an obviously taxing performance. By the time the curtain falls her lipstick is smeared, her mascara has run down her face and she looks sore and exhausted - perhaps anyone would be after a show with equally intense emotional and physical dimensions. Her effort is worth the bruises: she brings Irene Danner's story to vivid life.

But her own story is a little more hazy. Meishar explains at length that she can never know who she truly is, despite intense genealogical research and lots of poring over dusty tomes. That many of her ancestors' individual stories were swallowed up by the carnage of World War II and the Holocaust is undeniable - but during the show, she also explains how her immediate relatives survived the war. 

One climbed out of a moving train and escaped into the woods, others assumed covert lives under false documents, and some survived the camps. I ended up a bit confused about whether she knew her family history or not - and I couldn't really the see the relevance of the DNA test (I'm also sceptical of people defining their identity by their DNA profile but that's an argument for another time). What is communicated well is the long-term historical impact of the Holocaust, in common with Danner, the millions of Jewish victims and their surviving relatives, Meishar is unable to escape its gravitational pull.

One aspect of the show being out of focus doesn't affect the big picture, and The Escape Act shines a light on a story I would never have heard if not for Meishar dramatising it. It's a smart, well-performed and informative piece of theatre, and well worth checking out

The Escape Act: A Holocaust Memoir is on tour, appearing at Circomedia, Bristol (September 26), CircusMASH, Birmingham (October 26+27) and The Lowry, Salford (October 29). Tickets and further details here.

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