Review by Shelley Hampton
The Diary of Anne Frank is not a play that one usually connects with a good night out. I headed to the Arts Theatre, Adelaide, on the opening night of this play, knowing that there was to be no way out for the characters in this story and feeling a depth of dread about going to the theatre to potentially be depressed. This beautiful production left me feeling neither of these emotions. What I did feel was calm and reflective. I was humbled by the experiences of these, and many millions of other Jews in the Holocaust. It even brought me to connect with the plight of so many today, who are experiencing statelessness and persecution, particularly given the recent horrific events in Syria.
Geoff Brittain has gathered a stellar cast in this production of the very well-known story and tells this tale with poignant and stoic beauty. Each actor brings a depth and respect to the characters. Their fear, desperation and tenacity were real and palpable in every moment.
I was immediately struck by the stage design by Ole Weibkin, openly in view before the commencement of the play. This is a cluttered, claustrophobic world, authentic to the period and set cleverly across a variety of levels. The lighting by Richard Parkhill complements this, with subtle hues and the rays of light from the outside world through the skylight making a brilliant analogy for the constant hope in the hearts of those hiding in the attic. Another fabulous touch in the play is the use of projection, created by Ben Todd, of Anne recounting portions of her diary – a clever way of melding the past into the present and drawing the audience even further into the narrative.
Whilst most people know of the atrocities of the Holocaust from television, film and museums, we are also privy to the trauma of this time through the diary of Anne Frank – a young Jewish girl from Amsterdam. She takes us on her journey as she spends nearly two years hiding in the annexe at the back of her father’s company building with seven people—her mother Edith, father Otto and sister Margot, another family of three – The Van Daan’s and later a stranger, Mr Dussell — all hoping that they will be liberated from the Nazi takeover of Holland.
The play follows this two year concealment to their final arrest by the Gestapo in a way that leaves the audience gripped to their seats – nerves taut, knowing the sorrowful end, but willing and able to watch the connection of these people in what must have been a hideously difficult situation.
I said that these performances are stellar, but no star shines as brightly as that of Henny Walters, playing the title role. This young lady creates an Anne who is perky and bright and full of optimism. She moves joyfully about the stage and throughout the time frame shows growing maturity and realistic passing of time. An absolute joy to watch, she embodies everything positive about life and why it is worth fighting for.
Another standout, if one can pick any in such a talented cast, is Tim Williams as Otto Frank. His opening and closing moments in the play are moving and beautiful – his tears for his lost family so believable that this reviewer was feeling his overwhelming sense of loss and love to the core of her being. Williams is powerful, and eminently watchable as he constantly tries to hold the family together in what is an untenable situation.
Also an absolute joy to watch is the full body acting style of Nicole Rutty as Edith Frank. Intuitively and effortlessly, she conveys all of the emotions in the play, from joyfully hopeful to desperately panicked. Her passion for her family, particularly her unfailing love for her teenage daughter, is obvious and this talented actress lives the role.
Mr and Mrs Van Daan are played well by Tim Taylor and Therese Hornby. They capture the struggle of these two characters well and in places bring humour to an otherwise sombre tale. Ronan Banks is also quite lovely as the shy son who finds solace in the company of Anne and his awkward blossoming affection is acted with realism.
Margot, played by Genevieve Venning, could potentially be a thankless role, as she hides at times in the shadow of the vivacious Anne. However, Miss Venning brings a quiet integrity to the role, using stillness to great effect. Chris Leech as Mr Dussell is excellent and effectively causes irritation to the audience and the cast as the grumpy dentist. The unsung heroes of Miep Gies and Mr Kraler- Esther Michelsen and Stuart Pearce, are well played and bring a certain hopeful calmness to the constantly tightly wound coil that is in the annexe.
Costuming by Gilian Cordell and Trudi Williams is time-accurate and set dressing has been done with great attention to detail by Alda Ward and Lisa Kennewell.
Geoff Brittain is to be commended for this production. It has so much light and shade – moments where a pin drop could easily be heard, contrasting beautifully with hopeful moments of elation.
This is a not to be missed night of Adelaide theatre. Congratulations to Adelaide Repertory Theatre for a historically and religiously accurate production, which touches the heart and reminds us of light that can shine from even the darkest corner.