Monday, July 16, 2018

The Man in the Attic

The Man in the Attic by Timothy Daly.  Shalom & Moira Blumenthal Productions at Eternity Theatre, Darlinghurst, Sydney July 4-22 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 14

Director – Moira Blumenthal; Set & Costume Designer – Hugh O’Connor; Lighting Designer – Emma Lockhart-Wilson; Sound Designer – Tegan Nichols;

Cast:  Barry French – The Jew; Danielle King – The Wife; Gus Murray – The Husband; Colleen Cook – The Neighbour

Shalom Theatre, in conjunction with Moira Blumenthal Productions, stages a professional production each year, “telling universal stories which reflect the history, culture and identity of Jewish life.” 

Timothy Daly has written “I first came across the story of The Man in the Attic over a decade ago, in a book of German radio plays, which made the briefest of references to a newspaper clipping of the trial of a couple who were accused of keeping a Jewish man ignorant of the fact that World War II had ended…. I needed access to the records of the actual court case. (The un-named couple were apparently taken to court over the deception.) All attempts to locate the transcript failed, not least because it took place in a rural area whose court appeared no longer to exist.”

So “in the absence of the full historical record, some of the play had to be re-imagined and even re-invented. As a simple example, to this day, I do not know the name of the Unknown Jew who is the hero of my play. But, in a strange way, it did not matter.”

The Man in the Attic, then, indeed reflects “the history, culture and identity of Jewish life”, but is a story of much wider significance.  In the German tradition, for example, the story of why the anti-Semitic husband kept the man in his attic, despite the risk – in order to make money on the illegal black market in the chaos of 1945 – was a parallel to the fictional story that Bertolt Brecht had written in 1939, Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, set in the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th Century. 

And, I imagine, in the current chaos of refugees doing their best to escape – often with the worst results in detention centres around the world, not to mention boatloads drowned – there are many making money on the side.  We might see The Wife who rescued the man hiding in the woods, in this play, as a ‘bleeding heart’ – as Peter Dutton, Minister for Border Security would say – but her Husband turns out to be Dutton’s other bete noir: a ‘people smuggler’ of a particularly nasty kind.  He uses sex with the Party woman next door who might reveal his business to authorities, and finally kills her when he can steal her ill-gotten gold – for the money and also to permanently protect his business.

The Wife, of course, has to go along with her husband and even compromise herself by telling lies to the The Jew, since the reason she found him in the first place was she was searching for wild fruit in the forest when she had no money and the shops, even if she could have paid, had been bombed by the Allies.  Even after Hitler’s death (which the German radio announced as a glorious sacrifice) and the Americans appeared with pictures of the Holocaust, these villagers had to keep the expert watchmaker in their attic working.

What actually happened in real life is not clear, but Timothy Daly finally allows The Wife’s conscience to get the better of her, and she releases The Jew while her Husband is away ‘on business’.  The play does not suggest how The Jew might have got on even when freed.  I can only add a personal touch.  I am named after my uncle who was captured early in the War, but who fortunately returned to England in 1945.  He walked from Poland to Holland to get home, but would never say anything about what he saw on the way.

So, though I cannot say that Daly’s scriptwriting is of Brechtian quality, the set design, costuming, lighting and especially sound are effectively done, and the acting and directing competent.  The result is a production which should be seen because it reveals how terrible are the effects of big power play in human society on the lives of ordinary people.