Alan Lovell, Graeme McRae, Beth Aubrey in Coming to See Aunt Sophie: Photo by Dan Blumenthal.
As part of the Polish resistance movement in World War II, Jan Karski took extraordinary risks to alert Western powers to the unfolding nightmare of the Holocaust. He was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto to see boys from the Hitler Youth laughing as they shot Jews for sport. He dressed as a Ukrainian militiaman at a transit point for the gas chambers in Izbica, Poland, to bear witness to the cries of thousands of Jews being beaten, stabbed and crammed into train carriages coated with quicklime. With his photographic memory, he travelled to London and Washington to convey such horrors hoping these governments would prevent extermination by bombing the railway lines leading to the death camps. The response in the UK and US? Churchill refused a meeting, US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter did not believe him, and Roosevelt asked about the condition of the Polish horses, but asked nothing about the state of Europe’s Jews. In Karski’s words ‘The Jews were abandoned by all governments, church hierarchies and societies’.
Arthur Feinsod’s Coming To See Aunt Sophie is based on Karski’s 1944 account of the years leading up to his meeting with Roosevelt called Story of a Secret State. The play is set in 1978 when Karski, by then a long established professor at Georgetown University, tells his story to a French documentary filmmaker. The action switches between the interview with the older professor and vignettes from the younger man’s time as a courier for the Polish Underground. Debuting in May 2014 in Germany and since performed in Poland and the US, the play has arrived in Australia at the Fig Tree Theatre.
The story of Karski’s efforts to bring Western powers to the aid of the Jews is an incredible one worth telling again and again and there are times when the current production does it justice. Graeme McRae as the Young Karski is excellent when he paints a vivid picture of the Jews being packed into boxcars in Izbica. Director Moira Blumenthal’s blocking for a scene in which two desperate Jews implore Karski to help is well done. Karski sits with his back to the audience in a chair in the front-middle of the stage, almost joining the audience in listening to these passionate pleas for help. The set, lighting, costume and sound design all intelligently meet the challenge of evoking scores of different moments from Karski’s life.
Yet I can’t escape feeling disappointed with Coming To See Aunt Sophie. The story feels hamstrung by limitations in both the play itself and this production. Starting with the uneven pacing, we race through countless scenes from Karski’s early life and time in the Polish Underground during the War, then slow down drastically for his meetings in the West which then feel drawn out. We meet 50 or so characters in short order and identify with none of them. Karski is the only character with any development but even then, because the play is based on the Polish courier’s own account of events, the portrayal seems a little self-serving and one-dimensional. No doubt Karski’s actions were admirable, but even heroes are more interesting when we see their inevitable flaws.
The minimal character development is exacerbated by the decision to have two actors play dozens of characters each. In prior versions of the play, four or five actors shared the load of the myriad of roles. Expecting two actors to believably inhabit so many parts and accents is a high bar, one which is not cleared.
I also keenly felt discordance between the intensity of events on stage and my own emotional engagement. Lest you think I’m a heartless critic unmoved even by the Holocaust, you should know that last night I got teary during an action scene in 90s blockbuster The Rock. I’m also still awaiting the day when I can watch Titanic without becoming a blubbery mess (don’t worry, sometimes I also watch good movies). Perhaps the rest of the crowd welled up and I didn’t notice, but it felt more like the one-two combination of overacting and underacting built a brick wall between actors and audience.
Nonetheless, it’s vital that we keep telling stories about powerful institutions as perpetrators and accessories to injustice and full credit to the production team for doing so. The play has potent messages about governmental and societal passivity in the face of prejudice and brutality. Karski sees the failure to intervene as consent and calls bystanders ‘murderers’ accomplices’. The play calls on us to ‘shatter indifference’ where necessary and points out that ‘the same hate is happening everywhere today’. You’d have to dig yourself a deep hole in the sand to miss the echoes for the Australian public’s relationship to asylum seekers.
Coming To See Aunt Sophie is a flawed but important play which condemns inaction in the face of injustice and recognises the noble efforts of individuals and resistance movements fighting to rouse us from the dark silence of passivity.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Coming To See Aunt Sophie
By Arthur Feinsod
Director: Moira Blumenthal
Lighting Designer: Emma Lockhart-Wilson
Set Designer: Victor Kalka
Costume Designer: Jennifer Ham
Sound Designer: Alistair Wallace
Cast: Alan Lovell, Graeme McRae, Tim McGarry and Beth Aubrey
The Fig Tree Theatre, UNSW
30 July – 23 August 2015