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A Child In Striped Pyjamas at the Cockpit Theatre

Like many people of my generation, I was on the receiving end as a schoolboy of visits to the classroom by survivors of the Holocaust. The purpose behind such visits, if I recall correctly, was to help pupils understand better what went on in a way that a textbook simply couldn’t. One of the many memorable points I took away from these eyewitness testimonies was the accepted fact that there were some other survivors who wouldn’t set foot in a classroom: rather like certain war veterans who would rather not have anything to do with a Remembrance Day parade, recounting their World War Two experience is simply too traumatic, and they would prefer to talk about almost anything else.

A Child In Striped Pyjamas by Noah Max. (c) Bonnie Britain.
A Child In Striped Pyjamas by Noah Max. (c) Bonnie Britain.

A Child In Striped Pyjamas is, almost by its nature, a bold piece of theatre – an opera set in Auschwitz based on a book that has come under criticism from the Centre for Holocaust Education at University College London. Their research discovered “many young people appeared to draw mistaken and/or misleading conclusions about the Holocaust based on their engagement with the narrative”. John Boyne’s book, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, is a great work of literature (yes, I’ve read it) but I must admit I was surprised to discover it is used in schools as teaching material about the Holocaust. In the book and in this operatic adaptation, there are two nine-year-olds as central characters, one of which is in the concentration camp. I note with interest a critique of the book by Rabbi Benjamin Blech that points out that the sheer reality of there not being any nine-year-olds in Auschwitz because “the Nazis immediately gassed those not old enough to work”.

As far as this production is concerned, it has a Jewish composer, Noah Max, who bookends his opera with prayers and choruses in Hebrew. He told the audience in a pre-show interview that this was a nod to his upbringing, the kind of music and liturgy that he would hear and participate in whilst at synagogue. He had even considered staging the opera in a synagogue, but realised having actors dressed as military personnel in the Third Reich made that idea inappropriate. A considerable number of audience members at the performance I attended were from the Jewish community, and personnel from the Community Security Trust, a charity that protects British Jews from antisemitism, were doing an exemplary job, inasmuch as I have rarely, if ever, felt safer in a theatre at night.

There’s an old joke about Italian opera being better when sung in Italian rather than in English because the translation is provided, which then makes it impossible (visual impairments aside) not to understand what’s being sung. This show has both – aside from the aforementioned prayers and hymns, everything is in English, often using the exact same phrases and terminology used in the book, with surtitles. Depending on one’s vantage point in the theatre, these were, ironically enough, partially obscured by the positioning of the concentration camp’s high perimeter fence in certain scenes.

The opera resolves the issue of treating the Nazi regime too sympathetically with a twist that manages to shock and yet is unsurprising: The Father (Jeremy Huw Williams) weeps over the loss of his daughter, named only as German Child (Suzanna MacRae), only to dust himself off and order “the next lot” of interred Jewish people to be sent to the gas chambers. They had other words to describe their victims, of course, but we need not regurgitate them here, suffice to note one is made deliberately uncomfortable by the sustained and repeated use of slurs, sung as they were at full operatic volume.

The music becomes discordant whenever required, and for a few minutes in the second half, Jewish Child (Rachel Roper) speaks softly rather than sings her lines, indicative of the physical toll of concentration camp life (or, rather, survival). Completing the set of on-stage characters is Lieutenant Kotler (Xavier Hetherington), who came across at face value as one-dimensional, but then there is something about being unpleasant to everyone that makes him the ‘right’ person, for want of a better word, to run a concentration camp. Did I enjoy the show? No: it was about the Holocaust. But it is an engaging production, sensitively handling the provocative subject matter in a way that lends itself well to the operatic art form.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

A Chamber Opera by Noah Max
Based on The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
By special arrangement with Miramax

The premiere production of Noah Max’s new opera based on John Boyne’s international bestseller, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. A Jewish Child and a German Child, separated by barbed wire yet united in friendship. This symbolic tale explores the darkest chapter of human history in a way audiences of every age can engage with.

‘Intensely haunting and emotionally devastating, Boyne’s delicate fable takes a child’s eye view of twentieth-century history and finds resonances lacking from many adult accounts’ – Waterstones

Jeremy Huw Williams (Baritone) – The Father
Rachel Roper (Mezzo-Soprano) – Jewish Child
Susanna MacRae (Soprano) – German Child
Xavier Hetherington (Tenor) – Lieutenant Kotler
Echo Ensemble
Noah Max – Conductor
Guido Martin-Brandis – Director

Wednesday 11 and Thursday 12 January 2023 – 7:30pm

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