This play is a fable. I know it’s a fable because the world’s biggest typewriter (heard but not seen) pounds the words ‘A FABLE’ onto the tea-chest-style wooden backdrop at the start of the story. I also know it’s a fable because the original novelist, the adaptor and the designer all describe it as such in the programme. Fable fable fable: the more you say it, the stranger it becomes. Or perhaps its meaning is already lost, perhaps those involved in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas simply want it to be a fable, and saying the word repeatedly will make it true.
You might wonder why it matters: isn’t storytelling always about telling lies? But when your subject is the Holocaust and your tale couldn’t possibly have happened – critics have accused it of trivialising the Nazi death camps – you’d better get your justification in early. Preferably in giant projected letters in the centre of the stage. So it’s a fable. But Aesop, this is not.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas centres on Bruno, a nine-year-old boy whose family has to leave its wartime Berlin home because the father has been promoted. It seems he’s very good at his job; his name has been noted in high places. Consequently, much to Bruno’s displeasure, they up sticks and leave and set up house in the countryside close to his father’s new place of work. To Bruno’s young ear, this unwelcome destination is called ‘Out-With’ – hints of Neverland perhaps. But it soon becomes clear – to the audience, if not to Bruno – that father is now a death camp commandant deep in Poland. It’s never stated, but Out-With is a malapropism with a chilling, historical heart.
Desperate to explore but forbidden to leave the garden, Bruno fulfils the sacred duty of all fictional boys in such circumstances. He leaves the garden. Beyond the grounds there’s a fence, and beyond the fence there are people. They wear striped pyjamas and shuffle backwards and forwards joylessly, mechanically. And there’s a boy too – a nine-year-old inmate called Shmuel. With the fence between them, not to mention a vast gulf of experience that they don’t even notice, they chat matter-of-factly like two kids who just go to different schools. It’s a fable you see; one that happens to be impossibly sad.
John Boyne’s 2006 novel has become a favourite text in schools not only because it tells a powerful story about two children – two lads from different worlds who become pals – but also because it acts as a gateway into the most shattering event in human history. The worry is that stripped of its factual complexity, the horror at its core can make no sense except as fairy-tale; is the real-world backstory diminished by two Just Williams forging friendships through a fence?
I watched this Children’s Touring Partnership production with Ezra, my 12-year-old son, who has read the book in class. We both enjoyed much of its stagecraft – it centres on a bare arena around which director Joe Murphy keeps his barbed-wire threads untangled though they loop and double-back through time – but felt that sometimes it suffered unavoidable stasis: it is a story about imprisonment after all. Hemmed in by metaphor and rooted to the spot, the cast embark on lengthy conversations that slow the action and can be claustrophobic.
It feels like exquisite relief, therefore, when Bruno finally makes his escape from his bedroom window one evening, initiating a gracefully choreographed transition from the deadening world of duty into the boundless freedom of the night. He swoops, he leaps, he tumbles; darkened characters lift and twirl him to the ground. And as he roams, the fence is artfully spirited into place. His adventure must come to the deadliest of stops.
On the night we saw the play, Bruno was played by Jabez Cheeseman, although the role alternates with Cameron Duncan. While the theatrical convention is for young characters to be played by actors older than the part, that isn’t the case in this show. Jabez really is nine-years-old, as is Colby Mulgrew who plays Shmuel. It seems extraordinary that such young kids should be supporting the weight of this story, but there they are, perky and apparently unphased. Bruno is on stage for the duration, which is no mean feat considering that to a nine-year-old, playing this part must be like taking on King Lear.
Bruno doesn’t realise what’s happening at Out-With because he’s a child, but we wonder at the excuses of the adults. This is very much a play of averted gazes, of eyes cast to the ground, with the family’s maid Maria – played by Rosie Watt – having perfected an unseeing, unhearing modus operandi as she flits through their lives, folding washing and calling Bruno and his sister to tea. Bruno’s mother, played by Marianne Oldham, has an even more complex relationship with the truth. Initially standing firm alongside her husband, her knowledge and shame pass across her face only fleetingly before she finally seems to submit to her country’s decay and ends up drunkenly seducing the deeply unpleasant Lieutenant Kotler.
Through its success as a novel and a celebrated film, the ending of this story is well known. It may be that there are plot points that steadfastly defy belief and others that might result in critical rage – this is a death camp that holds hundreds of children, when in truth they would all have been gassed on arrival – but when that powerful conclusion finally arrived, Ezra and I were agreed that the story’s irresistible momentum won out.
It is a fable, we decided, and given Bruno’s uncomprehending innocence in the face of humanity’s greatest crime, we thought of an alternative title: we called it The Boy Who Didn’t Cry Wolf.
Photos by Manuel Harlan
What: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
Where: Liverpool Playhouse
When: Until April 4, 2015
For tour dates, click here