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Sydney review - New Theatre's Diary of Anne Frank

David Wiernik as Peter and Justina Ward as Anne. Photo by Matthias Engesser.

Diary of Anne Frank

By Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett

Directed by Sam Thomas

New Theatre

542 King Street, Newtown

Season: 9 June – 11 July

The story of Anne Frank, her family, the van Daans and the dentist is widely know. More than 25 million copies of the diary Anne kept during the two years she was in hiding from the Nazi have been sold over the years.

It is one thing to read about this horrific occurrence, it is another to see it on stage.

New Theatre’s production of Diary of Anne Frank visits Anne’s experiences as a Jew in a Nazi regime, canonised through her writing and emblematic of millions of Jewish experiences. This production is heart wrenching and highlights the irrepressible humanity that comes to the fore in the face of a brutal regime.

It can be simple to drown out the human experience at this point in history by perceiving the events through statistics or distant narrative, in attempt to stomach the appalling reality. Thomas’ show fleshes out the remarkable characters portrayed in Anne’s diary to confront the audience with a humane perspective, incorporating despair, fear, hope, folly, and love.

As the number of Holocaust survivors diminish, it becomes more important than ever that the experience is revisited in an emotionally affective way to ensure that we never forget and these systemic atrocities are never repeated.

Casting for this show was excellent, particularly in the choice of Justina Ward as Anne Frank. Ward’s performance brought an adolescent complexity to the stage, fraught with confusion and tumult in relationships and heightened by the exasperating circumstances.

I had been bracing myself for a very intense production, as suggested by the subject matter. However the grim depiction of circumstances was interspersed with humour to not only enable the audience to face the events, but also to reveal the spectrum of emotions that feature in human experiences. Ward injected great humour into the piece through Anne’s vivacious and often antagonising nature. Furthermore, Ward presented Anne’s insatiable appetite to pursue the vast potential for her life. Dreams and idealism flourished and released her from the claustrophobic bounds of the annex.

The development of Anne’s relationship with Peter, played by David Wiernik, was endearing and sufficiently awkward. As seen in her diary, this connection with Peter was pivotal to Anne and the play conveyed their sweet teenage affection. The significance of a relationship based on deep understanding is expressed in this situation, but also in any situation at this stage in a young adult’s life.

Ward’s ability to interact authentically with the other performers on stage is salient, evidenced in Anne’s contrasting relations with each of her parents. The strained relationship with her Mother, Edith, played by Jodine Muir, highlights the estrangement that can occur as a result of polarised personality, and inability of a mother and daughter to understand each other. I assume the vast majority of people could relate to challenges in familial relationships, producing characters on stage all the more relatable in spite of their situation being relatively foreign to our own personal experience. Conversely, Anne displayed a profound affinity with her Father, Otto, portrayed impressively by James Bean, embodied compassion and reason at odds with a hateful and hysterical climate.

Contributing to the evocation of claustrophobia was the sound, set, and costume design. Recordings of Anne’s voice reading her diary entries allowed us into her psyche and granted us a magnified insight into her experience, with sound design by James Ackland.

The annex was constructed as if there was a single main room; however the actors performed as if there were multiple rooms in the space, overcoming the need for construction of cumbersome barriers between the audience and the actors. The number of people in the space and the sloping sides of the stage frame produced a restrictive sensation.

The set, by Allan Walpole, and costuming, by Famke Visser, appeared to have been plucked from the 1940s, reflecting effective design decisions. All of the characters initially entered with innumerable layers of clothing, in order to transport as many clothes as possible without drawing attention. Throughout the piece, they took off layer after layer, and changed outfits on stage, highlighting their constriction in the annex and cleverly aiding transition between scenes.

This play left me feeling incredibly upset, and rightly so I think, considering the mass devastation wrought on a people due to prejudice and religious intolerance. The production triumphed in invoking a deep emotional response – any less would not have done the story justice.

Primo Levi, a Jewish writer and scientist, himself a holocaust survivor, summarised well my feelings on the significance of Anne’s story. "One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live."

Anne’s voice has been given new life through her enduring writing, and significantly, continues to be revitalised on the stage. New Theatre’s production is a must-see.

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