Anthony Bentley, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Denial by James Douglas, Edinburgh Fringe, Fascism, Freedom of Speech, Nazi Germany, Nicola Vincent, Red Card Theatre, Ruth Urquhart, Theatre Review, Tollcross Central Hall
James Douglas’ “Denial” is the first of three interlinked plays about the Nazi Holocaust, all of which are, or will be, showing at the Tollcross Central Hall. “Denial” is not a drama of obvious depth, but it compensates for this with some definite moral urgency and an unusual breadth of functions.
The drama is, in fact, only a third of the play. We are presented with three “pilgrims”: neo-Nazis who are visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, partially in disguise, to pay “homage” to the annihilation of millions of Jews. The pilgrims are a motley, almost clownish bunch, and you might initially dismiss them as caricatures. Bernard (Anthony Bentley) is the sinister brains and his bodyguard Brian is the brainless brawn (in this respect, Brian’s name might be an ironic misspelling). Bernard is accompanied by a tittering companion named Magda (Nicola Vincent), who bears an undeniable resemblance to Cruella de Vil. The far-right are so wretched these days that this gruesome threesome is conceivably an entire political party.
But this play will be somewhat lost on you if you fail to pick up that the pilgrims are based upon real-life figures who the writer had observed on a trip to Auschwitz. It is a highly innovative premise to take some random strangers and put them on stage, frozen in a replication of how they had once appeared in an accidentally snatched moment. They might still be out there somewhere. They might one day come to this show and meet themselves again.
“We will offend,” the cast warn before the pilgrims appear. “Denial” deals a good blow for freedom of speech: Brian’s sniggering racist and anti-Semitic comments could get him arrested if he was not a fictional character, but it is important that we know the awfulness of what we are up against. Moreover, Brian’s big, fearsome words will only shrink him down to a tiny strutting insect. His Nazism is hollow and pitiful.
Unfortunately “Denial” does not imagine much more of a story for the neo-Nazis, and they are lost amongst the Auschwitz crowds. The play becomes an increasingly clunky presentation; and it then sounds like a textbook, with Auschwitz testimony being recited at us; and then it is finally a slideshow, with pictures of the camp being projected at us. We seem to be travelling backwards; I felt that a Fringe audience was bound to be already educated about the Holocaust, and that they would have liked to have learned more about the neo-Nazis. Yet the best part of the show is a talk with the cast at the very end, which speeds everything forward again. “Denial” has been on educational circuits around colleges and prisons and the cast tell some fascinating stories about audience reactions at previous gigs.
When I visited Auschwitz in 2012, I found it too difficult for somebody as mentally soft as myself to connect in any profound way with the history. On my return, I debated with a Holocaust “denier,” largely amiably, about what I had seen, and I found this experience to be completely infuriating. In the end, after exhaustive disputes about the chemical properties of Zyklon B, we agreed to disagree. I am not sure that “Denial” would make any headway against my demented Jobbik-sympathising friend, but for those of us who do believe, it is always valuable to be reminded why.
[I’ve not managed to sweep up all the names of the cast and I’d be grateful if anybody could fill me in, down in the comments.]