Review: God on Trial

Lizzie Mahoney 21 November 2013

8pm, Wed 20 to Sat 23 Nov, Homerton

As I walked out of the Homerton auditorium after HATS’ performance of God on Trial, I felt distinctly strange and unsettled – the smiles and chatter which usually accompany leaving a theatre were replaced by a shared silence, while the audience attempted to come to terms with the incredibly powerful piece of theatre that we had just seen.

Adapted from Frank Cottrell Boyce’s televised play, God on Trial asks the question: how could a merciful God who had signed a covenant with the Jews allow his chosen people to suffer the horrors of Auschwitz? This problem is explored by a group of prisoners, all of whom have conflicting views about whether their suffering is meaningless, or whether the Holocaust might be a part of God’s greater plan.

Portraying the Holocaust through theatre brings with it a whole host of ethical challenges: watching a play tends to be enjoyable, after all, and how can we justify getting any enjoyment out of an atrocity like the experience of the Jews in Auschwitz? How can we attempt to depict the unimaginable suffering of the people in the concentration camps? Director Louise Banable clearly recognises the ethical dilemmas which burden any fictional representation of the Holocaust in art, and creates a piece of theatre which is emotionally moving and thought-provoking, but never insensitive in its depiction of intense suffering.

Banable chooses to set the production on a traverse stage, where the audience are in two rows facing each other and surrounded by bunks of prisoners, often within touching distance of the actors themselves. Sitting opposite another row of audience members can feel slightly uncomfortable at times, and yet this sensation of having dozens of eyes on you contributes to the generally unsettling and claustrophobic atmosphere of the play. Being so physically close to the actors makes us too feel like prisoners, which invites us to consider our own responses to the questions of morality, justice and faith which the performance raises.

As much as Cottrell Boyce’s script is fantastic, it’s the performances of the exceptional ensemble cast which really allow this piece to become such a powerful and arresting production. There’s a great deal of dialogue in the play and very little physical action, and yet each prisoner’s retelling of his life invokes a story far more expansive than the one we see on stage. Tom Walter stands out as Schmidt, a man desperately clinging on to the hope that his suffering will lead to something beautiful. Yasmin Freeman brought many audience members close to tears with her intensely emotive performance, as did Carn Truscott, whose nervous, softly-spoken depiction of Ezra was immediately relatable. And yet to single out any specific performance almost does a disservice to the entire group of actors, each of whom brought a sense of individual humanity and idiosyncrasy to their roles.

HATS’ adaption of God on Trial is an extremely brave and poignant piece of theatre, which isn’t afraid to confront the horrific inhumanity and senselessness of the Holocaust, and yet still leaves room for faith. I don’t feel quite the same after experiencing it, which is always a mark of something particularly special. If you make the trek to Homerton just once this term, make it this week – as God on Trial is an outstanding production which will challenge your beliefs and linger in the mind long after you’ve left the auditorium.