Review: A Lesson from Auschwitz
Image: BROTHER WOLF
Michael Shon - Abraham Könisberg
James Hyland - Rudolf Höss
Vocalist: Peter Thomas
In 1941, Rudolf Höss, Commandant of the Nazi concentration camp known as Auschwitz, assembled his SS personnel in a secret meeting with the express purpose of introducing a new method for exterminating Europe's Jews: Zyklon B, a deadly poison gas.
Every soldier in attendance was sworn to secrecy, and no one questioned its usage.
No one except a lone Jewish prisoner, forced to participate and humiliated throughout; the very prisoner upon which this "lesson" would be demonstrated.
Based upon real events, 'A Lesson from Auschwitz' explores how and why the Nazis did what they did, shedding light on the mentality of the perpetrators and the disturbing reality of life in a death camp.
During this play by James Hyland, we are in a secret meeting led by Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz.
Höss, played by the writer, tells us he has received instructions from Hitler to carry out mass executions of Jews as a means to provide 'the final solution' to 'the Jewish question'.
Auschwitz was selected for this hideous task in part at least because of its convenient rail links which would enable huge numbers of people to be brought to the camp for 'disposal'.
As part of this secret meeting, we hear of the Nazi rationale for eliminating the Jews as well as hearing details of how the task will be achieved using a pesticide-based gas called Zyklon B.
During a sometimes frenzied and chilling, but calculated rant, Höss tells us that it was the Jews who were responsible for the outcome of the First World War and asks the horrifically absurd question "Do the Jews serve a purpose?".
While Höss is offering numerous other reasons why the Jews must be exterminated, a Jewish prisoner, dressed in the manner of the death camps, is present.
He has a small blackboard hanging round his neck with "ich bin zurück" written on it - the translation being "I am back" - telling us that this is an escapee who has been recaptured.
Now even if this prisoner was due to be executed later, I'm not convinced that he would have been in this top secret meeting, and that started to make me feel uneasy about this element of the drama.
Of course, dramatic license allows events to be manipulated to make points that might not otherwise be possible if logic or reality is followed exactly.
And that, I think, is Mr Hyland's purpose here, but the detour from the secret meeting's main purpose of disclosing the detailed plans for mass extermination didn't feel wholly believable or necessary - apart from providing another character.
It does manage, though, to demonstrate the utter ruthlessness of the Nazis in their ambitions to eradicate Jews, even when some of the victims had served Germany bravely in a previous conflict.
Both performances here deserve recognition and considerable praise, though they certainly don't make for comfortable viewing - but such is the nature of the play's subject matter.
James Hyland convinces admirably as a man who has totally absorbed a shocking and inhuman philosophy to the extent that he can countenance any deed, including mass murder on an incomprehensible scale.
Though there are times when Höss seems manic, he is not insane or mentally deranged, but a man wholly assured of his purpose and duty, and intent on persuading (or forcing) others to follow his lead.
At times, Mr Hyland's Höss is exceedingly scary, able to send uncomfortable shivers down one's spine and making us all feel awkwardly unsettled when addressing us directly.
Michael Shon also ably convinces as the Jewish prisoner, grimly bloodied and already severely weakened at the start of the play, he has to stand in one position for a substantial part of the piece, and is required to decline into a state of collapse as he's subjected to more humiliation and a further beating by Höss.
That beating of the prisoner seemed a touch on the lengthy side, even if it was designed to make a critical point about the Nazi methodology of emotion playing no part in their grossly appalling treatment of the Jews as well as showing their ability to follow through to the bitter end on their plans and intentions.
Overall, though, the play does provide us with an important warning and lesson from a vile and shameful period of history - that we must be ever watchful for the emergence of such repulsive ideologies in the future and be prepared to fight against them.
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ActDrop listing for New Wimbledon Theatre
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