Downstairs at the Maj
reviewed by Neville Cohn
It’s a preposterous notion, a gratuitous awarding of German citizenship with all rights and entitlements to six million Jews from around the world to somehow assuage the limitless grief and pain that the Holocaust caused. It is a thought-provoking “what if…….”
One of the nazis’ most odious policies was that of ‘lebensraum’, a ferociously violent and cruel colonisation of vast areas of conquered lands to enable the German people to have as much territory as needed for the expansion of the so-called master race. In putting this into practice, millions of innocents, primarily but not exclusively Jews, were butchered on an industrial scale.
Three actors, portraying literally dozens of people, provide an absorbing theatre experience on this most unusual theme. I cannot readily recall a play that makes such extraordinary demands on its players, not least because the characters are of all ages and backgrounds coming from a wide range of countries necessitating the use of numbers of linguistic accents. And apart from the opening moments of the play when the German accent adopted was quite unconvincing, the players delivered impressively on this count through a lengthy work. True, there were some minor fluffs – but in the wider context, this gave an added dimension of reality to the proceedings.
All three actors – Vivienne Garrett, Brendan Hanson and Craig Williams – delivered remarkably credible impersonations of a daunting number of characters. On this level, the production was a tour de force.
I particularly admired the skill with which animated conversations between two people were held – but featuring only a single actor. Craig Williams was impressive in this, with a rapid exchange of hats the only prop in a hugely skilled episode, an animated conversation between two people, courtesy of one actor.
An American couple with a son take up the offer as does an outrageously camp gay pair from France. There’s also a very old Holocaust survivor living out his last days in a remote spot in Australia. He, too, turns up. He finds himself a job in Charlottenburg (whence he fled years earlier) as carer for a very old, bed-ridden and now-helpless former piano teacher, the very person who dobbed his family in to the Nazis because he and his siblings ‘wore pretty clothes’. He was the sole survivor. He exacts an unusual revenge.
Back to the Americans: the man of the house finds a place in the work force quickly as a wharfie – he’s a hard worker, impresses his boss and is soon offered a promotion. Then his boss gives him a supervisory role. There’s growing resentment from German-born workers as more hardworking Jews from abroad are welcomed to the country and given jobs. There are ugly scenes. As this happens, I dare say that the notion of a 21st-century revisiting of the Holocaust takes up a lot of wishful thinking on the part of displaced German workers.
There’s also young love between a young American fellow with a German lass.
Horovitz’s play consist of many, often very brief, scenes that call for considerable skill on the part of the actors to ensure a smoothly unfolding play. And that was gratifyingly apparent, so ensuring that the impact of the play as a whole was greater than the sum of its constituent scenes, directed with gratifying attention to detail by Lawrie Cullen-Tait.