The Independent London Newspaper
18th February 2019

Feature: Theatre - Based on Aharon Appelfeld's allegorical Holocaust play, Badenheim 1939 -Sir Arnold Wesker's version is at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s Silk Street Theatre

    Sir Arnold Wesker: ‘It is very chilling to watch these relationships played out’

    Published: 04 November 2010
    by DAN CARRIER

    THE horror of what was happening in the death camps in eastern Europe was such that, even as cattle trucks were lined up, it was beyond people’s comprehension that such evil would await – that fellow humans would be capable of such acts.

    It is this haunting fact that drives a new play by playwright Sir Arnold Wesker, based on the allegorical satire Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld, first published in Israel in 1978.

    The world premiere is to be performed at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s Silk Street theatre – and Wesker says the task of adapting it for stage was chilling.

    “It is an extraordinary novel with its own unique atmosphere. Its themes fit into the canon of my work well,” says the playwright, whose previous productions include Chicken Soup With Barley, Shylock and Blood Libel.

    The writer says he has tried to stick as closely to the original text by the Israeli novelist as he could.

    “I believe all adaptations should be as faithful as they can,” he says. And while he wrote it nearly 15 years ago, the play has not been produced before. The cast is large – 50 people – and includes actors and musicians. It means, according Sir Arnold, that only the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company or a university could have staged it, due to the sheer number of bodies needed. 

    The story centres on a fictitious summer resort that hosts a popular arts festival in Austria, called Badenheim. Popular with well-heeled middle-class Jewish people, it is home to an annual arts festival, the type that German and Austrian Jewish communities would have been involved in, a mark of the central European civilisation that made the Holocaust appear an impossibility to so many at the time.

    “It is 1939,” says Sir Arnold. “Strange things are beginning to happen. The spa begins to have visits from sanitary inspectors who take over the spa’s facilities, and start asking every Jewish person there to register.”

    The nightmare scenario begins to take shape – barbed wire encircles the town, guard dogs appear and more Jewish people begin to be sent to the town with little explanation as to why. 

    While the audience watching the play has the knowledge that a dark cloud is forming over Europe, the people on stage, the characters in the play, are blissfully unaware of what is to come. The facilities at the spa begin to creak – then the people are informed they will be moved en masse. It is an idea that haunts Sir Arnold.

    “They are told they are being moved for their own good to Poland,” says the playwright. Most of the inhabitants have no understanding of what this means and they go compli­antly. The novel is about these people who were planning a life in Poland without knowing what that really means. 

    “We know what we are witnessing – we know what really happens. It is very chilling to watch these relationships played out by these people who do not know what is going to happen, but you do.”

    He says even when the trains come for them, no one is aware that they are going to their deaths.

    “In the last line of the play, when they are at a train station, where they expect a train with proper carriages and instead there are cattle trucks the ever-optimistic festival director says: ‘If they sent us these dirty carriages, it means we can’t be going very far...’”

    Badenheim 1939 by Arnold Wesker runs from November 26-December 1, 2pm, at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s Silk Street Theatre, at the Barbican. Tickets from the Barbican, 020 7638 8891, www.barbican.org.uk

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