Paul Anderson, review of Ghetto by Joshua Sobel (National, Olivier), Tribune, 12 May 1989

Joshua Sobol’s Ghetto succeeds where Jim Allen’s Perdition failed, using the theatre for a subtle and disturbing investigation of the impossible predicament of east European Jews confronted by the slowly tightening noose of Nazi genocide. Set in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius, which had 40,000 Jewish inhabitants in 1940 and only 600 in 1945, the play tells the story of the last months of the ghetto, focusing on the experience of the actors and musicians of the ghetto’s Yiddish theatre.

Ghetto revolves around the corrupt relationships among four Jewish characters and one German. The most important of the Jews, Gens, the chief of the Jewish police (John Woodvine), is a Zionist. He justifies his collaboration with the Nazis on utilitarian grounds: his goal is the survival of the maximum number of Jews for emigration to Palestine, and it is even worth sending some to their deaths, he believes, if others are thereby saved. By contrast, Kruk, the ghetto librarian (Paul Jesson), is a secularist Bund socialist with links to the partisans. He detests Gens’s nationalism and his collaboration with the Nazis; yet he has no obvious alternative to offer, and even he is sucked into unwilling co-operation with a Nazi “academic” who is cataloguing Jewish cultural artefacts before the race finally disappears.

Then there is the Jewish entrepreneur Weiskopf (Anthony O’Donnell), who seizes his opportunity to make money by getting his fellow Jews to work for the Germans mending uniforms. Gens tolerates him because his greed has the side-effect of keeping Jews in “useful” work (and thus temporarily out of Nazi clutches); but in the end, Weiskopf’s profit motive and Gens’s aim of securing survival of the greatest number are incompatible. Finally, there is Hannah (Maria Friedman), the star singer of the theatre, in her twenties. Her growing hatred of the Germans leads eventually to a heroic decision to flee the ghetto to join the partisans — yet it is her absence that finally gives the Nazis the excuse to liquidate the ghetto.

Against the Jews, Sobol pits Kittel (Alex Jennings), a vicious sadist who happens to love music and theatre. He delights in the slow elimination of his prey, enjoying every moral dilemma faced by the Jews in the certain knowledge that he will inevitably prevail. He rules by dividing, playing off Gens against Kruk, dispensing favours to the theatre company becuase he lusts after Hannah.

All the actors in this first English language production (translated from the Hebrew literally by Miriam Schlesinger and polished up by David Lan) are superb, with Jennings’s public-school-bully rendition of Kittel particularly outstanding. Nicholas Hytner’s direction is near-faultless.

Altogether, an extraordinary politico-moral drama. Catch it if you can.

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