Review: The Project
Image: White Bear Theatre
(character - actor)
Victor Gerrin - Lloyd Morris
Anna Hilmann - Faye Maughan
Peter Weiss - Nick Delvallé
Millie Hilmann - Eloise Jones
Ette Hilmann - Cate Morris
Conrad Schaffer - Mike Duran
Northern Holland, 1943.
A bleak muddy camp in a bleak muddy landscape.
Bursting at the seams with angry worried people torn from their homes and surroundings.
And in this camp a miracle.
A cabaret performed by the very best artists in Europe.
A cabaret the courteous smiling camp commandant wouldn't miss for the world.
Just as he wouldn't miss signing off the weekly transport that sends 1000 Jews to a frightening destination in the East.
A cabaret of comedy, dance and song and in particular one dancer who catches the commandant's eye - the talented Anna Hilmann.
Will she accept his invitation and dance for him?
Is it a poisoned chalice or reason to hope?
Will it keep her and her loved-ones off the dreaded transport list?
And if it does is it a compromise worth making?
With a background based in historical fact, The Project looks at the terrible choices forced on people in a surreal world that has lost its moral compass.
The horrors of the dreaded Nazi concentration camps of World War II and their mission to kill vast numbers of Jews, and many others who didn't fit the Nazi vision of the perfect human, have been well documented.
Though the plethora of past work about this subject area shouldn't negate a re-examination of it, it makes life difficult for a new drama because of the well-worn nature of the issues.
Writer Ian Buckley seems to have found a different avenue to explore.
Rather than revisit those camps where the killing actually took place, Mr Buckley focuses on an earlier stage in the industrial-sized process of extermination, locating his play in a transit camp in Holland where people destined for concentration camps in Eastern Europe are held and sorted before being despatched to their ultimate fate.
In a camp in Westerbork around 1943, we find people temporarily languishing in austere conditions, though almost comfortable in comparison with the killing camps of the East.
The inmates here are allowed to play sports and follow cultural pursuits, and there's an efficiently-run hospital providing ample medical treatment.
This approach by the Nazis kept (some of) the inmates guessing about their future - with some clinging to the belief that they were destined for work in the East rather than death - keeping them more manageable for their captors than might otherwise have been the case.
In the transit centre, we find Cate Morris's Ette Hilmann and her two daughters, Anna and Millie, who are dancers and singers.
Camp Commandant Schaffer (Mike Duran) has taken a fancy to Anna (Faye Maughan) engaging her as his maid and dance tutor.
Driven on by impresario Victor, and boyfriend Peter, Anna is persuaded into pandering to the commandant's romantic interest to gain much-needed time and to obtain information about their fate.
Even given the more relaxed setting of the transit camp, Anthony Shrubsall's rather vapid production never shifts into full dramatic gear to deliver a real sense of atmospheric terror, or even much in the way of underlying fear.
Partly, that's due to the nature of the setting itself, but Ian Buckley fails to wring the dramatic potential from the piece, even when some of the scenes offer it in abundance.
We do find the tension ramped-up somewhat near the end where the desperate Victor pleads with Schaffer, but that seemed too little and too late.
At the beginning of the second half, there's a concert where the actors dance, sing and provide their own musical accompaniment.
The intention seemed to be to convey a sense of nervousness among the inmates, but it needed stronger clues and more precise direction to make it work - as it is, it comes across as simply a lacklustre afair sporting an ill-conceived comedy routine, even by the standards of the times.
The Project certainly has considerable potential, with its intriguing focus on the devious mechanics of the Nazi extermination programme.
However, the production fails to impress with opportunities unexploited, and failing to convey the real fear, tension and conflict that must have riddled this kind of institution in reality.
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ActDrop listing for White Bear Theatre
Our show listing for The Project
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