The Tin Ring[author-post-rating] (5/5 stars)

Dignity, passion and human resilience take centre stage in this compelling and considered adaptation of Zdenka Fantlova’s memoir, The Tin Ring, the eponymous ring being the token of first love and symbol of life that Fantlova carried with her through six concentration camps. Economically yet evocatively staged by Mike Alfreds and Jane Arnfield, this testimonial of a Holocaust survivor is harrowing yet ultimately hopeful, a tale just as much about redemptive love and healing wounds as it is a faithful and horrified first-hand account of persecution and suffering. At the centre of this work is a commanding and intricate solo performance from Jane Arnfield, in which she plays Fantlova, her father, her mother, her lover Arno, along with brief and terrifying glimpses of SS men and Gestapo officers – one woman’s extraordinary life distilled into an hour of powerful and unforgettable honesty.

What is perhaps most laudable about The Tin Ring as a theatrical work is its exemplary sense of balance and restraint. Though we hear the familiar names that make us shiver – Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen – we are not offered many unbearably gruesome details of the events that took place there, we are not offered the familiar nightmarish (nightmarish because they are real) images that, over time  (it seems terrible to admit), many of us have become somewhat desensitised to. It feels as if the sparse, understated visual language of this work comes from the adaptors’ awareness that these horrors cannot be so casually or glibly represented to an audience.

Considering the truths it shares, the trials that Fantlova underwent, it seem almost reductive to illustrate them in an any more ostentatious manner when the pure, unsentimental directness of the story Fantlova tells. The fact that Arnfield does almost nothing but simply tell it strikes so forcefully at the heart. It is almost unimaginable for us, sat in the Red Lecture Theatre at Summerhall, to comprehend even the simplest of horrors – that, when Fantlova was liberated, she was dressed in the tatters of clothes she had been wearing for six months. It’s difficult to grasp that there are so many concentration camps mentioned which are not so familiar to us, each with thousands of life stories and needless deaths of their own. The pared-back moments of conscious theatricality – hand gestures suggest military invasion or vast wasteland and a chair becomes a man – allows us to understand that under such circumstances, life and death are no longer such huge abstractions but rather dependent on tiny coincidences and chances, upon being in the right place at a particular time, upon the whim of a uniformed man saying “right” or “left”.

 The houselights stay up throughout and there is no climax or simple closure, because life has no climaxes, it seems. Fantlova’s experiences are a series of events that sometimes almost crushed her, sometimes saved her. The matter-of-fact delivery reminds us that terrible things can happen under apparently normal circumstances – even when the Nuremberg laws are passed, “it was odd”, Zdenka remarks, but she couldn’t ever have foretold the future. “It will never happen here!” was the refrain of her community and, of course, isn’t that the thought that strikes any one of us when we see reports of conflict and persecution on television reports and in newspapers?

In keeping with Fantlova’s unflinching will to survive and share her story, Arnfield never presents her to us as a helpless victim. “When you feel like a victim, you become a victim,” she asserts, and you have less chance of surviving that way. Fantlova’s response to her experience is truly inspirational – she looks ever forwards, not back, and there is a particularly staggering moment where she chooses to preserve the memory of her father as the quietly heroic figure that he was, rather than learning of what he endured before his death in Auschwitz. Arnfield’s blue eyes bore into ours, dignified, kind yet dauntless, challenging us to keep listening and thanking us for doing so. The Tin Ring demands to be seen, not only for Arnfield’s consummate performance but also for its dedication to telling the story of a crime which, as it “recedes into the past” threatens to take its still unlearnt lessons into obscurity with it. Painful and uplifting, it is one of the most challenging, and most necessary, pieces of theatre that you will ever see.

The Tin Ring played at Summerhall as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.