Monday, 14 January 2013

Theatre review: Olga's Room

Once Christmas and New Year are firmly in the rear-view mirror January's theatre offerings tend to embrace darker subject matters as an antidote to all the jollity. Olga's Room could be said to fit the bill as the Arcola offers up the true story of German Jewish communist Olga Benario, who spent time in Brazilian and German prisons in the 1930s and '40s before finally being sent to a concentration camp. This is where we first join Olga (Bethan Clark,) who spends her time writing on the walls and floors, to remind herself of the significant events in her life as her sense of identity starts to fall apart. Dea Loher's play then takes us back to the cell she shared with teenager Genny (Larisa Faber) and actress Ana (Ceridwen Smith) following her revolutionary activities against the Brazilian dictatorship, which had links with Nazi Germany. There she lives under the constant threat not only of torture, but also of deportation back to Germany and the gas chamber.

Benario's life was horrific but has the potential to make an absorbing story, and I can't quite put my finger on why it doesn't really do so in Loher's play. Perhaps it's a matter of focus, especially at the start where the nested storytelling quickly trips over itself - the concentration camp framing device flashing back to the Brazilian cell, where Olga is straight away required to give big chunks of exposition, the tale of how she and her lover met and fought the junta becoming a bedtime story for the terrified Genny. Perhaps I'd have responded better if Loher had made her mind up whether she wanted to give an overview of Benario's life or focus on a specific series of incidents, but the play veers between the two. It comes closest to coming to life as it explores the twisted relationship between the women and their torturer Filinto Müller (Pete Collis.) Müller's torture of the pregnant Olga seems largely psychological, but Ana comes out of their encounter broken in more ways than one.


I never really felt sure to what extent Olga's offer to change sides was genuine or a ruse, and the relationship between the women sharing the cell is similarly frustrating in how it threatens to develop only for the playwright to take us away from it. It's not helped by David Tushingham's translation occasionally sounding on the literal side, nor did I really connect with the performances in Samuel Miller's production - they tended to fall a bit on the big side for the space. While Olga Benario's story is one that clearly deserves to be told, I'm not sure this play has found the right way of telling it.

Olga's Room by Dea Loher in a translation by David Tushingham is booking until the 26th of January at Arciola Studio 2.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.

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