Anne Frank’s Voice: raw but ruptured

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There is an almost insufferable intensity in the ramblings of an articulate and intelligent teenager. Unsullied by the cynicism that comes of disappointment, by the frustration of disrespect and the curse of seeking out finances, or by the leering shadow of context and criticism, these are people with audaciously fresh and bright dreams. They are capable of expressing a thirst for life and an enthusiasm for the future which might sear your older and wiser eyeballs. How much more so is this evident in the diary of Anne Frank, a Jewish German-born child living in Amsterdam on the cusp of the Anti-Semitic tidal wave just before the Second World War, which culminated in the Holocaust.

She was 13 when she went into hiding in a tiny suite of rooms behind a cupboard which she mooted ‘the secret annexe’ in a warehouse in the industrial part of the city. She was holed up with seven other people, including her parents and sister, and a boy a couple of years her senior. Over two years, Frank wrote a diary.

Five months before the end of the war, the ‘secret annexe’ was betrayed and raided by Nazis. Anne Frank and her sister Margot eventually landed up in the concentration campus of Bergen-Belsen where they contracted typhoid fever. The war ended, but both girls died, within weeks of each other. Anne’s diary was discovered by a cleaner, after the raid, and her father Otto, who survived the war, was instrumental in having it published. It is, today, considered one of modern literature’s great works.

But, has everyone who comes to see Mirenka Cechova’s theate piece premised on the diary, really read it?

Cechova is a formidably talented dancer. For a good portion of this work, we see only her back as she contorts her body and her voice around the text. It is heart wrenching, dramatic and magnificent and it has a denouement brought into play with light and sound that is simply haunting.

Her solo role is balanced by the presence of ‘cellist Nancy Joe Snider, atop a wardrobe, who, in the same way as Kutlwano Masoto in Greed or Bernett Mulungo in The Mother of All Eating, both recently staged in Johannesburg, allows the voice of the instrument to become a voice in the script. And there’s a depth of resonance and a beauty that happens with this device.

However, unlike the nuanced subtleties evoked by Masoto’s ‘cello and the sarcasm created by Mulungo’s piano, Snider’s ‘cello only listens and echoes. It doesn’t have an ‘opinion’ of its own or a sense of wit. But it does, after all, represent the voice of Kitty, the imaginary contemporary to whom Anne Frank has addressed letter after letter, page after page.

Cechova, in a costume that is something between a full apron and a onesie, with her hair behind an alice band, is everything 13-year-old Anne described herself as. She’s smart and witty. She’s emotional yet cunning. She’s sensitive and nimble with language. She can be cruel and hilarious in her descriptions of the people around her, the circumstances into which she is crammed. She is also susceptible to love. She is hungry for knowledge and painfully aware of how limited her experience of the world is. She’s powerful and frail: caught in a web of contradiction and imposed hardship. Her bravery and robustness are peppered with self-deprecation and humour. In short: she’s completely three dimensional.

Cechova dances in and around the iconic child’s words and worlds with a sensitivity that makes you want to stay your heart. There’s a bigness to her gestures and an astonishing sense of innovation in the piece’s design, but also an invested respect for the authenticity of a teenager grappling for meaning in the world, that really does take your breath away.

But, there’s a level of assumption with regard to Anne Frank’s story, that lends this Czech-based work rupture in its brilliance. When you go and see the artistic intepretation of a great complicated, long, difficult, classic — Anna Karenina or The Lord of the Rings, for instance: you never contemplate the need to do prior homework. The challenge of the makers of the piece are such that the basic bones of the tale are evident. Edited it must be, but the nub of it needs to have clarity to everyone in the audience: Big and small, young and old, literate and not.

This is not the case with The Voice of Anne Frank, sadly. While the skipping across chronology inside and out and back again, are not distracting, it is the nuances in the personal realities of the diary that are brushed damagingly away. We’re not made aware that ‘Pim’ is an endearing nickname for Anne’s father. Or that Kitty is a figment of Anne’s imagination. You don’t really understand the horror of the situation in which she is entrapped. Indeed, many children are obliged to read the book as a part of their school curricula, but do they imbibe it initimately? Do they remember it? With a few explicit narrative triggers, this beautiful work would have melted any audience into oblivion. But as it stands, to enjoy it properly, you need to read the text first.

The Voice of Anne Frank: The Performance conceived by Mirenka Cechova and directed by Petr Bohac is performed by Cechova and Nancy Joe Snider, and is at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theate Complex, Newtown, until August 29.

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Čechová brings Anne Frank to the stage as a dance work

Photograph by Martin Marak.

Photograph by Martin Marak.

She might not be Jewish, but she understands how the Holocaust remains in Europe’s blood and bones. Miřenka Čechová (32) (pictured), internationally respected Czech performer and choreographer, was seven years ago so swept away by Anne Frank’s diary, that she created a work about it. “I recognise Anne in me,” she told the SAJR last week. <<A version of this story was published in this week’s issue of the SA Jewish Report: http://www.sajr.co.za>&gt;

Anne Frank earned iconic status as a teen diarist. Born in Germany, she spent her childhood in Amsterdam and lived in a secret annexe in the industrial part of the city, with her family and four other people, between 1942 and 1944: as Jews they were under threat of Nazi persecution.

On August 4, 1944, German security police and Dutch Nazis raided the annexe and sent its occupants to concentration camps. Five months later, the war ended.  

In Bergen-Belsen, Anne and her sister Margot contracted typhus. In February, Margot died. The loss of her sister broke Anne’s spirit; she died in March 1945 – three months shy of her 16th birthday.

In 1947 her father, Otto, who survived, facilitated the publishing of her diary, picked up by a cleaner, in the Amsterdam raid’s wake.

The diary is much more than teen ramblings; it reaches into the psyche of a thoughtful, three-dimensional sensitive and real person trapped in an insufferable situation, and traces her emotional growth belying her age. The diary spawned presence in the arts, from theatre to film. Now, it is articulated a dance work.

“In the Czech Republic, Holocaust history remains in our blood and bones,” Čechová, celebrated the world over, speaks of her work’s fragility. “It is constructed of subtle intimate emotions, expressed with honesty and authenticity onstage.

“I read the diary for the first time, like most Czech children, at 13. But I read it again as an adult at university. That time, I fully appreciated its depth.”

The work, which debuted in Prague in 2008, was funded by the European Association of Jewish Culture. It was Čechová’s first collaboration with director Petr Boháč. “It took us nine months: It was like our baby. It’s probably the most essential work we’ve made.”

She is incredulous as to the legs this work has grown. It was her final masters degree project at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts, where today she lectures, having won a Fulbright scholarship and attained her doctorate.

The work was feted at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2013, which triggered the Market Theatre season in Johannesburg. “Its set comprises two wardrobes. In one, ‘cellist Nancy Joe Snider, represents Anne’s imaginary friend, Kitty, the diary’s addressee. A call-and-response energy is generated.”

The costumes are also minimalist: “Nakedness interests me – without masks or pretence.”

Last year, Čechová fell in love with South Africa. “Coming from Europe, I’ve never been this intimate with nature. It brings me to my human origins.” She also visited a township, and was exposed to cuisine and jamming. “I joined in, with drums! In this trip, I want to dive deeper.”

  •  The Voice of Anne Frank is at the Market Theatre in Newtown until August 29.