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Old Red Lion Theatre, London

Under the Skin
3.0Reviewer's Rating

Yonatan Calderon’s powerful 2013 play about Holocaust survivor Charlotte Rosner is lyrical, though it fails to reach its full dramatic potential. First debuted at the 2017 Women and War Festival, the drama revolves around Rosner’s relationship with Nazi Anneliese Kohlmann during World War Two. Revital Snir’s choreography deftly weaves scenes together whilst evoking Rosner’s past life as the prima ballerina in pre-War Prague. Artfully directed by Ariella Eshed, the use of dance, physical theatre and music portrays feelings of loss, guilt and love.

This proves to be the crucial fabric of the play as disappointingly many of the lines fall flat, muting Calderon’s script. The play’s hybrid of Brecht and naturalism overshadows the words themselves, detracting from the scrip’s potency. However, Batel Israel’s performance shines through; she consistently punctuated her words with emotional intensity. Whether she was an inmate at a concentration camp, a Nazi cabaret host or fascist Doctor, her characterisation was captivating. The other two actors did not differentiate as convincingly between characters, blunting the play’s emotional intensity.

The performance began with a gripping tableau. As the audience filed in, there was a palpable disconnect between the older Charlotte, sitting in her Tel Aviv apartment ‘haunted by her ghosts’ and the present. Despite the intimacy of The Old Red Lion’s attic theatre, the stripped back set, furnished with few props against a naked black wall, emphasises the psychological trauma at the centre of the play. The script works hard to thematically link the first Gulf War with World War Two and parallels the narrative of Giselle with Ilsa and Charlotte’s love story. At times this pays off although due to the generally wooden acting, the allusions appear prescriptive and uninspiring.

The play is only about an hour long, creating the opportunity for crucible of concentrated emotions but the dulled lines prevent the drama from reaching a true climax. A scene that should be heart wrenching – when Charlotte’s closest friend in the concentration camps dies, seconds after liberation – leaves much wanting. The Tik – Sho- Ret Theatre company behind Under the Skin seems to be one to watch, as the premise of this play is interesting. Their mission is to ‘provide a platform for Israeli and Jewish theatre in the UK, ‘encouraging cultural and artistic exchange’.  And while they may have presented a thought-provoking play, living up to their aims, the emotions in this play could be taken further.

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