Cordelia O’Neill’s No Place for a Woman, which opened this week at Theatre 503, belongs among the best of Holocaust fiction. Tenderly written, superbly rendered by director Kate Budgen and beautifully acted this 75 minute two-hander scorches to its melancholy conclusion. At the end of it, human behaviour under the most extraordinary of conditions seemed, if only for a short while, a little more, well, human.
No serious person ever thinks of anything else but the Holocaust, according to Martin Amis, quoting WG Sebald. Yet to others, to even attempt to write about it is blasphemy. Certainly no fictional account of the Holocaust renders it explicable. It remains as unknowable and impenetrable as the deepest ocean. The nearer one gets to it, the more distant it seems.
Yet, it is surely still a valid topic for art. The best plays and novels about it – like, for example, Amis’ Zone of Experience – open briefly the smallest window into the heart of the monstrosity, even if it is closed again shortly thereafter.
In Cordelia O’Neill’s No Place for a Woman, set in Poland at the end of the war, two women are being interviewed by the Allies. Annie, the elder, is the wife of a man, Frederick, who held a senior position and was responsible for many murders at the recently liberated camp. The younger, Isabella, was a ballet dancer and has managed to survive by ingratiating herself to Frederick.
Told in consecutive monologues as one part of an imaginary conversation with either Frederick or their Allied interrogator, Annie and Isabella tell their stories. Annie meets Frederick at the ballet in the halcyon days of pre-war Berlin: there is music, champagne, parties and children – though Annie isn’t really that bothered about them. Frederick is the sun and moon of her life.
Isabella is a beautiful young dancer, with a ballerina’s body so epicine that the camp guards think she’s a child still. But Frederick spots she’s a dancer and separates her from the rest for his own usage. Isabella lives in their cellar, to be visited, clandestinely, by Frederick. Annie finds out and her world collapses. In the midst of unimaginable suffering, her loss becomes insupportable.
Music and ballet are key components of what is, literally and figuratively, a dance between these two women as they tell their stories. Not only does this underpin the action onstage beautifully, it also feels exactly right. The Germans were a cultured people. Annie and Frederick meet at the ballet. They are both alive to beauty. And we know that Germans staffing the camps would return to their children and have musical evenings with string quartets playing Beethoven and Brahms after a day at the gas chambers.
A cellist, Elliot Rennie, who also composed the score, sits behind a gauze upstage. Sometimes the music is sweet and harmonious, at others harsh and discordant, the bow scraping and screeching across the strings.
The director has gone for sombre lighting throughout, much of the stage constantly in shadow. This doubtless suited the tone of the piece, but, it was, perhaps a little overdone. At times it felt as dimly lit as The Godfather, faces in half shadow.
Annie is played by Ruth Gemmell and Isabella by Emma Paetz. Both are very good, but Gemmell is sublime. It’s one of the simplest, yet richest, performances you will ever hope to see. It’s full of nuance and subtlety. Her Annie is, in turn, both terrible and heart-breakingly vulnerable, yet always absolutely believable and human.
The strength of her work is, in fact, one of the show’s only weaknesses. While Emma Paetz’s Isabella is far from poor and is in fact good, she’s overshadowed by her older colleague. One finds oneself listening only to Annie’s story, and waiting for Isabella to finish her lines so we can get back to hear what Annie has to say. It is as if Gemmell is working with a palate of such richness and colour that it would have delighted Van Gogh, while Paetz has to use FS Lowry’s paint box.
In many ways, this is an unprogressive play. Though about two women, they fight over a thoroughly disreputable man. And Isabella is utterly unrepentant at doing what she has to do to survive and live. But it’s none the worse for this: rather, it shows human beings acting and behaving as we know they do, rather than acting and behaving as some might wish them to do.
However shocking Isabella’s actions might appear, they should not be judged by anyone who has not experienced such conditions – so that’s all of us. Camp survivors have said that human beings reveal only 5% or so of their natural selves in normal day to day existence. Only in conditions that cannot be imagined do we learn what we are really like.
There’s one minor quibble: at one point the script appears to ask for both women to be naked as Annie finally confronts Isabella in the cellar. Yet they discard their nightdresses to reveal 1920s-type male bathing suits underneath, which Isabella, at least, cast aside in the cellar to await Frederick, certainly wouldn’t wear.
One can see why this choice is made. The nakedness could be seen as titillating or exploitative. But only the least sensitive theatre goer would think this. In fact, the moment could have been both touching and sad, and it seems a shame that this possibility was eschewed for fear of upsetting the smallest of minds.
Yet none of this distracts from what at times is a quite spell-binding night at the theatre. It’s painful, funny, awkward and at times hard to watch. Which is exactly as it should be.