Outstanding performances and thoughtful direction make for a compelling production with a potent message.
Photo: © Matthias Engesser
‘I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.’ It’s an extraordinary 15 year-old girl who can face the threat of genocidal annihilation for two years, trapped in claustrophobic quarters with her critical family, and still believe in fundamental human decency. It shows strength, empathy and idealism, and for decades readers and theatregoers alike have fallen in love with Anne Frank for these qualities. It’s all the more heartbreaking then when the moment we dread arrives.
There is much to love about the New Theatre’s production of the Pulitzer winning adaptation The Diary of Anne Frank by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, starting with Justina Ward’s performance in the title role. She has a magnetic presence which ranges from haunting, in her opening moments on stage, to playful, when dancing with her father or dressing up as 16-year-old Peter Van Daan. Whether behaving cruelly to her mother, expressing guilt about this relationship, or bursting with excitement during a family celebration of Hanukkah, Ward is equally convincing.
Beyond her impressive range, Ward does full justice to the feminist aspects of Frank’s character. Anne Frank refused to abide the sexist norms surrounding her. Her older sister Margot is held up by the Franks, Van Daans and Mr Dussel as the paragon of femininity – passive, quiet, meek, and obedient. The younger sibling is demonised because she spurns these norms: she’s irreverent, talkative, and ambitious. Best of all, Frank questions authority, an unspeakable crime for a woman in 1940s Europe. Or 2010s Australia. We cheer to ourselves when she protests against Mr Van Daan, who advises her to be a ‘domestic girl, who’ll keep her house shining for her husband’. With a talented female director (Sam Thomas) at the helm and a strong female lead, schoolchildren across Australia would benefit from seeing such a fantastic depiction of femininity.
James Bean is the other standout performer of the cast. He brings to life Mr Frank as the archetype of a beautiful man and loving father. He’s the glue which binds things together when they start to fall apart. Bean has the gravitas to deliver lines like ‘We don’t need the Nazis to destroy us, we’re destroying ourselves’ with great emotional impact. He’s compelling as the sensitive, supportive father who fosters his daughter’s fertile mind.
Bean and Ward are well complemented by the rest of the cast. Dussell for example, offers his amusing asides with aplomb, and despite one or two weaker performances, the scenes bringing together all eight residents of the ‘secret annexe’ in joy or fear are strong. The cast creates a beautiful familial atmosphere at Hanukkah and effectively captures the emotional intensity when Mrs Frank discovers Mr Van Daan stealing rations. The climactic scene, coming much like in Titanic, just when you hoped it might not end badly after all, is brilliantly executed.
Credit must go to set designer Allan Walpole for his simple and effective evocation of confined quarters and to James Ackland and Leonie Cohen for their moving soundscape. Famke Visser should be congratulated for her apt costumes, as should Heidi Brosnan for augmenting scenes with clever lighting design.
Director Sam Thomas should be applauded not only for her intelligent direction but also her admirable political intentions. She has crafted a production with her team which is both faithful to the essence of the 1940s diary but also speaks to the present. Thomas herself has said ‘The play’s underlying themes of discrimination, intolerance and the scapegoating of minorities are, sadly, as relevant today as they were back then ... innocent people are still being imprisoned, tortured, beaten and murdered because of their religion, race, sexuality or gender’. She says ‘The Diary of Anne Frank reminds us of the consequences of not speaking out against hate ... and of how drastically things can change when the wrong people are put in positions of power’.
You leave this production weighed down with sadness for Anne, her family, and the millions of others who died in the Holocaust because of horrific abuses of power. Your heart sinks when you think that these techniques of power are not confined to history. You reflect on how the Australian government scapegoats minorities and imprisons innocent people today. You reflect on how powerful forces can so easily debase the human condition.
Yet The Diary of Anne Frank is also about human beings who, for the most part, face adversity with good humour, courage and compassion.
You can watch this first class production and believe, like Anne Frank, that ordinary people are good at heart.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
The Diary of Anne Frank
By Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.
Director: Sam Thomas
Cast: James Bean, Rowena McNicol, Caroline Levien, Geoff Sirmai, David Wiernik, Jodine Muir, Jessie Miles, Justina Ward, Martin Searles and Martin Portus
New Theatre, Newtown NSW
9 June - 11 July 2015