Sunday, 2 April 2017
A Second World War drama which tackles the disturbing subject of the Channel Isles under Nazi occupation brings home to Francis Beckett the realities of resistance and collaboration.
by Moira Buffini
Barbed Wire, Bravery And Betrayal
Hitler did manage to occupy one part of the UK. Churchill decided that the Channel Islands were not of sufficient strategic importance to merit vast resources for its defence, and for most of the war, Channel Islanders were faced with the dilemmas and compromises which tormented the French.
White flags had to be displayed outside every home, and the only authority was whatever the Germans provided or permitted. The island beaches became minefields surrounded by barbed wire.
Moira Buffini’s 1997 play Gabriel is about how one family survived and the dreadful decisions demanded of the matriarch Jeanne Becquet.
Turned out of her big family home which has been requisitioned by the Germans, she lives with her teenage daughter, her daughter-in-law and a housekeeper on a farm. They sell the farm's produce to the occupying troops, and she adds to their comfort by exercising her sophisticated charm on German officers.
Near the start of the play, Buffini produces one of the cleverest devices I have seen for giving the audience the background information it needs without lots of tedious and unconvincing exposition.
She has Mrs Becquet give all the exposition that is required in front of a German officer who she thinks speaks no English, laughing privately at how shocked he would be if he understood her
The most important thing we learn in this scene is that her daughter-in-law, who lives in the farmhouse with her, is a Jew. Most of the Jews in Guernsey were evacuated before the invasion. However several remained, some of whom died in death camps.
The German officer, Von Pfunz, turns out to speak fluent English and to understand every word Mrs Becquet says. Indeed, he is not a textbook bullying, brutal Nazi, but something much more interesting, and ultimately much more frightening: a sensitive, clever, erudite, brutal Nazi.
The final element in the play is a young man found washed up on the beach, unconscious and near to death. He cannot remember his name or anything about himself, and the family christen him Gabriel.
Gabriel – the archangel Gabriel appears in both the Old and New Testaments, and is a figure in both the Jewish and Christian religions – leads the play into a sort of dark mysticism – which I personally found much less gripping than the very real events happening on the island of Guernsey in 1943.
This is a fine, thoughtful play which ducks no awkward questions, and provides no easy answers.
Yes, Mrs Becquet is both a collaborator and languidly, lazily anti-Semitic, but we understand and sympathise with her and her dilemmas and care about what happens to her. Yes, Von Pfunz is a Nazi who thinks the presence of a Jew in the household is “a cancer”, but this is no pantomime villain; Von Pfunz is a complex and interesting character.
A pretty well perfect cast is led by two wonderful, heart-breaking performances, from Belinda Lang as a torn and compromised Mrs Becquet and Paul McGann, quietly thunderous as Von Pfunz.
Kate McGregor’s direction is sensitive and sure-footed, and the set she and designer Carla Goodman have come up with emphasises the chaos and uncertainty, how everything can fall apart in an instant.
I saw this at the Richmond Theatre before it went on its current tour to Liverpool, Eastbourne, Mold in Wales, Windsor, Guildford, but it returns to London's Greenwich Theatre in May. A green light from me: catch it if you can.