How can one of the darkest hours of history be faced? How can it be told if remembering is unbearable, yet essential?
The past and the present merge in Yonatan Calderon’s play Under the Skin. It tells the lesser-known historical story of the Nazi commander Ilse Kohlmann (Adi Loya) and the Jewish ballet dancer Lotte Rosner (Natasha Lanceley), who start a love affair in Neuengamme, a concentration camp. The past is re-enacted through the process of remembering and narrating. Lotte calls herself Charlotte Brod (Loya) now, who is unexpectedly visited by the journalist Kirsten Eberhardt ( Lanceley), who herself is also hiding her identity. It is 1991 in Tel Aviv, the time of the first Gulf War, when the past is finally faced.
Under the Skin is based on Holocaust survivors’ testimonies and Kohlmann’s Bergen-Belsen court trial protocol. This production of Tik-sho-ret theatre company, translated as communication in Hebrew, marks the English debut of Calderon’s play. Tik-sho-ret was founded by the director Ariella Eshed to provide a platform for Israeli and Jewish theatre in the UK to trigger cultural and artistic exchange.
The audience is guided through precise and clear transitions from present to past and back again. Choreographer Revital Snir directs smooth changes of time through the vehicle of dance. These graceful transitions stand in a thought-provoking contrast to the loss of identity and self-respect forced by the unspeakable horrors and suffers of the prisoners in the concentration camps. Furthermore, Lotte’s dear friend Ida Berman (Batel Israel), who comforts Lotte throughout their time in the camps, is also present as a ghost of the past, who steps out of action and narrates the story for the audience.
Dance becomes a moment of liberation, of sheer freedom, in moments filled with darkness. Nevertheless, as a vehicle of memory, it transforms the present moment into the last memory of its performance. Therefore, after clinging to the liberational melancholy of the time in Prague’s ballet and after a performance in front of a Nazi meeting, Lotte cannot bear another step in her ballet shoes after her survival of the Nazi regime. Calderon’s play remembers a story in memory of all the stories of the victims of this inexpressible crime against mankind, which are obligatory to be shared and not to be silenced. Under the Skin presents the nightmares and their aftermath for the individual, their families and next generations. It is clever and thought-provoking as it questions the nature of love in moments of sheer survival which constructs power dynamics of inferiority, dependence and the power of hierarchies. Furthermore, it challenges the idea of sacrifice for love and the own made fate.
The skilled performance of Israel varies from being deeply touching when she tells about the historical facts, to being sarcastically entertaining when she performs as a cabaret host. Loya and Lanceley also convince through their ability to transform as different characters. Nevertheless, the love scenes appear as a stereotypical re-enactment and are not as convincing as they could be. A deeper investigation into the core of their relationship is desirable. Additionally, some moments are presented as extremely theatrical and therefore lose their credibility, which is unfortunate due to the performance’ s potential and its professionalism. These are the end scenes of Kohlmann’s trial and some moments of gracefully enacted transitions.
Calderon’s Under the skin is a deeply moving and touching retelling whose importance is unquestionable. It is promisingly performed from the Tik-sho-ret creative team and definitely will get under your skin!
Under The Skin played at The Old Red Lion Theatre until 31 March
Photo: Lidia Crisafulli