The Pick - Waltzing into the abyss

November 25, 2010

Badenheim 1939

Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, 26 November-1 December

A self-important impresario bustles around trying to ensure he has all the performers he needs for the annual music festival. A doctor lusts after an attractive schoolgirl. A professor puts the finishing touches to his learned monograph on Jewish history. The chemist tries to calm his distraught wife: "Trude, please, Trude! Calm yourself. There's no forest here. There's no wolves here. There's only me."

Spring has come and life in the Austrian spa town of Badenheim seems to be proceeding much as usual. Yet slowly but surely a sinister group of sanitation inspectors begins checking up on everyone, listing their assets and fencing them in. Soon, barbed wire and guard dogs begin to control their every move.

Aharon Appelfeld's celebrated novel Badenheim 1939, first published in Hebrew in 1978, offers a terrifying picture of a group of people caught in suspended animation, engrossed in their petty vanities, rivalries and flirtations, as the trap tightens and authorities much like the Nazis prepare to scoop them up and transport them to a Poland where we know the death camps await.

One critic described the book as "so highly stylised that it comes across as a nightmare in the guise of a comic marionette opera", although its huge cast of characters and series of short enigmatic episodes might suggest that it could pose a substantial challenge to adapt for the theatre. Sir Arnold Wesker's version, created in 1987 and now receiving its world premiere, requires a six-man band to perform jazz, tango, polka, waltz and Hasidic dances on stage.

Indeed, it was that element that caught the attention of Christian Burgess, director of drama at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

"We are obsessed with finding projects where actors and musicians need to be on stage together," he says.

The widest stage in London and a lavish supply of drama students made the school an ideal place for mounting a play with 21 characters that recreates the life of a whole town. Julian Philips, the school's joint head of composition, supplied an atmospheric score that echoes the styles of composers contemporary to the events such as Kurt Weill.

Although the novel is very obviously about the Holocaust, its approach could hardly be less documentary or more oblique. So how could something similar be achieved on stage?

"Newsreels show blankets of swastikas hanging in Vienna at the time," says Mr Burgess, "but we didn't want to be too literal and have created another sort of emblem.

"The sanitation officers wear white boiler suits with masks. And we'll also be using projections to create an atmosphere a bit like The Sound of Music at the start, when everything still seems wholesome."

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