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  • Theatre, Musicals
  • 2 out of 5 stars
  1. A woman dressed in black stands infront of a misty background, looking into an elevated light
    Photograph: Cameron Grant, Parenthesy
  2. A trio embrace a baby wrapped in a blanket, the background shows a series of white sculptures on wood shelving
    Photograph: Cameron Grant, Parenthesy
  3. A young girl in green looks fascinated as she peers at an open book, her parents standing behind her
    Photograph: Cameron Grant, Parenthesy

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

This world premiere musical is based on a fascinating story about finding creative expression in survival after escaping the Holocaust

There has, since the end of the second world war itself, been searing and complex questions asked about the role of art in depicting, representing and reflecting the horrors of the Holocaust. While we now accept as possible the idea of 'Holocaust art', a lingering doubt remains. Is there a limit or boundary artists need to respect, especially in regards to questions of taste or accuracy? Is a purely aesthetic lens appropriate or even possible when critiquing such work? What exactly constitutes bad Holocaust art?

These are questions occurred to me while watching Driftwood. A musical based on the memoir of Eva de Jong-Duldig, it has largely been driven by her daughter Tania de Jong, who plays Eva’s mother, Slawa. She is listed in the program as “Producer and Creator”, and is also credited as one of the lyricists, along with composer Anthony Barnhill and playwright Jane Bodie. The whole exercise has “vanity project” written all over it, an impression that only intensified to me as the musical progressed.

It opens in Melbourne in 1958, when Eva (Sara Reed) is turning 18 and her parents, Slawa and Karl (Anton Berezin), give her a box of memorabilia, intending to fill in the gaps of their story. Just why they haven’t told her any of this beforehand is difficult to discern, but we know it’s been bothering her, because she sings a song called Something Missing. It’s painfully literal, like almost everything in this musical, but also frustratingly avoidant: exactly what she’s missing and how that has coloured her parental relationships are ideas that are completely ignored.

We then move back to 1939 Vienna, as Slawa and Karl make art, design furniture, and live the bohemian life along with Slawa’s sister Rella (Michaela Burger). Eva is soon born and then – in one of those odd biographical details that add verisimilitude but don’t really advance a theme – Slawa invents the foldable umbrella! Much later, in the second act, Eva will become a professional tennis player and go to Wimbledon – and the effect both times is strangely irrelevant. These details seem to be here just because they happened, and the writers can’t extrapolate any further meaning from them.

The key event, of course, is the looming Anschluss in Austria and the eventual destruction of the de Jong-Duldig family line. This section of the musical is the most tense, as Rella disguises herself as a Nazi in order to save the family’s possessions, and the clan are terrorised and forced to flee. But it is also achingly familiar – indeed Tom Stoppard recently covered this exact same territory with his play Leopoldstadt – so the effect is slightly muted.

Director Gary Abrahams, brought on late after Wesley Enoch had to withdraw, is hindered by a lumbering, episodic book and some truly cringeworthy lyrics. An insistence on clunky rhymes and obvious exposition leaves virtually no room for subtext, subtly or nuance. Barnhill’s music is better, with its folk inflections and gentle melodic themes, although it could do with more variety of tone and tempi.

The cast's performances are also less than stellar, with both de Jong and Reed in particular presenting inert characterisations and some frankly poor singing. Berezin as Karl, and Troy Sussman in a variety of small roles, bring some poignancy, and Burger is terrific as the spirited Rella – but none of the parts give the actors much to do beyond the schematic. These people are all good, and decent and honourable, but they never feel complex or credibly human.

There are aspects to the de Jong-Duldig story that could have made the stuff of solid drama. Slawa and Karl have an intriguing, possibly problematic relationship with “stuff” – with furniture and possessions. It recalls the fascinating exploration of objects and legacy in Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. And the fact that the two sisters only met once after the war is surely relevant – a fascinating indication that the war separated people in ways that went far beyond the merely topographical. But Driftwood isn’t interested in thorniness or depth; it’s an anodyne, sentimental exercise in hagiography – central to the family’s self-mythology, but of scant interest to the rest of us.

Written by
Tim Byrne


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