A night spent with Ireland’s most innovative theatre company, Rough Magic, is a real treat. Two shows that couldn’t have been more stark in their contrast provided back-to-back entertainment that exhibited the rude health of Ireland’s burgeoning theatre talent. The first is a serious, theatrical meditation on the most serious of 20th Century topics which was then followed by a polished musical jaunt through the very American creation that is the assassin. The success of Rough Magic’s Seeds programme bodes well for the future of theatre in this country.
If you came to the show unaware of the subject matter, like I did, then the barbed wire fence surrounding the stage quickly dispelled any notion you might have had that Way to Heaven was going to be light entertainment of a Friday evening. The Holocaust is the incomprehensible catastrophe perpetrated by one people on another. It defies all logic and rationalisation but the thing that remains is that it happened. We are still trying to process that. The tackling of it through art is one way of doing this and perhaps the only proper reaction is to never forget.
The play opens with a Red Cross representative recalling his visit to the Jewish village Theresienstadt that the Nazis presented to appease outsiders. In reality it was a pitstop on the way to Auschwitz with trains running throughout the night. Immediately the theme of complicit guilt comes to the fore as the representative recounts his inability to see beyond the Nazis’ thinly veiled deception. He is stalked on stage by a Jewish man carrying balloons with the Star of David sewn on his lapel, later the significance of these balloons became clearer to this viewer. The Red Cross man joins the audience, sitting in the front row, and stays there watching the staged village come to coerced life. This emphasises the audiences role in the production, it challenges the audience to think not as an onlooker but as an active participant just like the Red Cross man in 1944. He was encouraged to ‘take photos, as many as you like’ but all that he filtered through his lens was the distorted image presented by the Nazis. He failed to spot what was going on and report it.
‘Way to Heaven’, or ‘Himmel-weg’ in German, has elements of Flann O’Brien’s “At Swim Two Birds” to it as it’s a play within a play, the staging of a staged village. At all times this production is trying to engender a reaction from its audience by making them uncomfortable, simply being a bystander is what allowed this to happen and such inaction must never be repeated.
Unnamed Jews perform mock village scenes that are carefully choreographed by the Nazis Commandant with the help of his reluctant Jewish assistant Gersham Gottfried: a string trio play their instruments, two boys argue, a couple bicker and a young girl plays in a stream. The balloon carrier drifts in and out of each of the scenes repeating what is being said, his presence is ominous. For me his balloons represent each family living in the village and as each is popped I took it as another inevitable departure on the trains. The tension builds as the repetition of the scene gains alacrity, balloons are burst, chaos reigns as it all comes to a cacophonous crescendo before live footage from Theresienstadt is played at the back of the stage. One outraged audience member who sat directly in front of me spoke out “But fuck……that’s real footage.” Then the Red Cross representative rises from the front row turns to the audience and takes a picture of the complicit and suitably shell-shocked audience. The heckler was in fact a famous director, it was so perfect it could have been a plant, but it wasn’t. Eliciting a reaction from the audience is what makes visceral theatre; the director Rosemary McKenna would have been pleased with the disruption.
Who would have thought that charting the history of both successful and botched attempts on American Presidents’ lives would have lightened the mood, but after the seriousness of the first play Assassins proved the perfect tonic. It epitomised the spirit of Rough Magic productions as it coalesced live musicians with a rollicking rendition of Stephen Sodheim’s 1990 musical.
America is the land of opportunity but that has proved a double-edged sword that some in the land’s highest office have fallen on. Others have dodged, or should I say ducked, their fatal bullet. Opportunity knocking and infamy seized is what unites this bunch of misfits. From John Wilkes Booth’s theatrics that created America’s greatest martyr to Ronald Reagan robbing lines from Paul Newman to mock his shooter the laughs are never far off. The funniest installment was the female duo who try and fail to shoot Gerald Ford a week apart. We finally come to Lee Harvey Oswald, the messiah of this pathetic bunch, having charted all the shots fired and all the characters who ensured their names would be forever linked with much better men, his decisive action in Dallas took these “losers” ‘out of the footnotes of history books’ and into popular culture.
Cap gun-shots and booming blanks perforate hilarious dialogues as this show highlights how in a land where the weapons that allow them to do so are written into the constitution anybody can fire their names into the history books.