Monday, June 12, 2023

Driftwood the Musical

 Driftwood the Musical.  Original stage play by Jane Bodie, based on the memoir Driftwood – Escape and Survival Through Art by Eva de Jong-Duldig (Australian Scholarly Publishing 2017).

Presented by Umbrella Foundation at Eternity Theatre, Sydney June 7 – 18, 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 11

Producer and Creator – Tania de Jong
Director – Gary Abrahams
Producer – Craig Donnell
Composer, Lyricist, Arranger & Musical Director – Anthony Barnhill
Set Designer – Jacob Battista; Costume Designer – Kim Bishop
Lighting Designer – Harrie Hogan; AV Designer – Justin Gardam
Sound Designer – Marcello Lo Ricco; Choreographer – Sophie Loughran
Music Director (Sydney) – David Gardos
Stage Manager – Tiff Lane

Tania de Jong – Slawa; Anton Berezin – Karl;
Bridget Costello – Eva; Michaela Burger – Rella
Nelson Gardner – Ignaz, Marcel, Gauleiter, Patent Attorneys & more

Musicians (Sydney)
David Gardos - Piano; Michelle O’Young – Violinist; Rachel Valentine – Cellist

In a story parallel to Stories from the Violins of Hope (reviewed here also June 11 2023), Eva de Jong-Duldig’s Jewish parents escaped from Germany just before WW II began, not to Palestine but via Switzerland and various parts of the world, ending up interned as ‘enemy aliens’ at Tatura, a camp near Shepparton which operated from 1939 to 1947.

Eva was only months old when her father entered a professional tennis competition in Switzerland, beginning a series of complex and often fraught steps of temporary arrangements, finally settling in Melbourne where Slawa’s drawings and paintings with Karl’s sculptural art works are now displayed in the Duldig Studio, managed by Eva’s daughter Tania de Jong AM.

Eva also became a tennis player who reached the first rounds at Wimbledon: In 1961 Duldig played women' singles at Wimbledon, representing Australia, and defeated West German Renate Ostermann in Round 1, and Robin Blakelock of Great Britain in Round 2, while losing to #8 seed American Karen Hantze in Round 3.  The musical includes her clash with the insulting Ostermann – the unknown Australian yelling back in perfect German.

The strong relationship between Eva and her father is the force behind her discovering a mass of documents and letters from the war-time period, finally meeting with her mother’s sister Rella in Paris after Wimbledon, and leading to the writing of her memoir, the stage play by Jane Bodie and the musical in which her daughter plays her mother.  

In keeping with my experience in this week, which I have called the Art of Human Kindness in the Face of Human Perfidy week, the producer Craig Donnell makes the point in the extensive program of DriftwoodJulie Andrews once said, “The arts make a bridge across this world in ways that nothing else can”.  Simon Wiesenthal cautioned us, “there is no denying that Hitler and Stalin [I suggest Putin] are alive today…they are waiting for us to forget, because this is what makes possible their resurrection”.

And indeed Driftwood the Musical is a serious genuine work of art, working like a traditional opera where the audience feels naturally ready to applaud after each aria and set piece; yet not avoiding the complexities of the story, nor the key issues of the often problematic relationships between Eva’s parents and between her mother and her aunt.

I have to say, on a lighter note, that when I first heard of this new Australian musical Driftwood, I assumed it would be a beyond the bush romance.  But the only connection was when Karl tried to assuage Slawa’s unenthusastic reaction to Australia by praising the gum trees and the stars.  Far more important was that in time, despite the horrors of the war at home, they were able to recover their own art work – at her sister’s expense – and find the freedom and opportunity here to make art anew.

Though in the end Rella’s husband Marcel would not come, though Slawa and Karl offered every help, should they feel guilty for having made their escape?  There is the dilemma that refugees the world over face, knowing so many others are left behind.  But at least through our art we are better able to understand what happened and why people made the decisions they did – and the risks they could see had to be taken, such as Karl leaving his wife with babe in arms to go to Switzerland with no more than hope that he could find a way to get them out.  Which he did – even if in reality all we can do is celebrate his luck.

Just as we celebrate Slawa’s invention of the folding umbrella in 1929!  Despite the Germans denying her the right to her royalties, since after all she was a Jew.  “We all need shelter” became the key line from this most unusual musical.