ArtSpoken & Reviews

The Boys from the Ashes

Robyn Sassen
02/16/2011 13:19:04

My View by Robyn Sassen: A Holocaust story in the mouths of babes skirts cliché and blends theatre devices with empathy and pink wool.

The trouble with Holocaust histories is they’re so well used they’ve slipped into dangerous cliché which can downplay the authentic value of the memories. Courtneigh Cloud is an emerging director - this piece was her fourth year submission in her drama degree - and she engages this problem with intelligence and skill, but also with heart. The narrative of ‘The Boys from the Ashes’ is her grandfather’s early childhood memories; this closing of a family circle is potent and moving in this fact before any other.

The recipe for the work: Holocaust survivor-grampa, doting granddaughters - one a mere 13-year -old, the other a university graduate - and an audience replete with openly supportive family members, could well have been a recipe for disaster, given the reality of uncritical engagement when it comes to matters of the heart. But it is not. Good, clean skill and an intelligent understanding of theatrical devices and their relationship with the play’s text, saves the day and has given this play legs.

An unfussy design, infiltrated with the haunting strains of traditional Jewish music, the work conveys ultimate horrors through empty clothes. And in this, it beautifully retains those seeds of theatrical wisdom, which give it life on stage.

Israel Gurwicz was born in 1932 in Poland, the middle child of a middle-class family, supported by a non-Jewish governess; their lifestyle was comfortable. On June 22, 1941, everything collapsed with the Nazi invasion of Poland.

“I am Israel Gurwicz and I am a Jew,” Mauricio Marques and Olivia Cloud, performing as the adult and child Gurwicz respectively, say in unison in a Polish accent, and this - particularly the bell-like sound of the child’s voice - cuts through your heart like a blade. It is not so much a realisation that this child is also Gurwicz’s granddaughter and thus has a vested interest in the accurate telling of the tale; it is the fact that a performer of such tender years can articulate values so nuanced and complex and dark, so credibly.

There follows the accounting of circumstances that took the Gurwiczes from their home to the ghetto to the forests where they were to be killed, and the trajectory of young Israel’s life, which saw him fleeing in the face of imminent death.

The extremity of his situation is conveyed with words; the gestures which hold your eyes are ones of domesticity. In one of them, Tonia Pietryk (Goldsmith), the governess, unravels knotted wool, while the story of the horrors Gurwicz became heir to is being recounted, and your eyes rest on this benign light pink wool. The power of this directorial frisson of wisdom is breathtaking.

The work does occasionally teeter on the brink of maudlin and literalness; it is saved by the pared-down nature of the set and the subtle tautening of narrative detail. This play also marks both young Cloud women as people in this industry to watch, as they grow and blossom.

“The Boys from the Ashes”, co-written by Israel Gurwicz and Courtneigh Cloud and directed by Courtneigh Cloud; performed by Olivia Cloud, Aimee Goldsmith and Mauricio Marques. At the Main Theatre, Wits Theatre Complex, Braamfontein, 011 717 1380. Until February 18.

Robyn Sassen
011 023 8160
084 319 7844
Related Venue:
Wits Theatre Complex, Braamfontein Johannesburg Gauteng South Africa