Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Review All Our Children


All Our Children
by Stephen Unwin

 Lives in Their Hands
 http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/

In 1942, four months after the USA entered the Second World War,  President Franklin D Roosevelt spoke to the nation in a radio address:

"Yet ... we can make, if we choose, a planet unvexed by war, untroubled by hunger or fear, undivided by senseless distinctions of race, color, or theory. Grant us that courage and foreseeing to begin this task today that our children and our children's children may be proud ..." 

One of the then senseless distinctions of theory was the German National Socialist regime's espousal of eugenics beginnning with a "euthanasia" programme in 1939. It targetted the mentally and physically disabled, children and eventually adults,  and anyone deemed to have a "life unworthy of life".  

Stephen Unwin's moving play focusses on the doctor, Victor Franz (Colin Tierney) in charge in an imaginary Rhineland paediatric clinic, one of many in Germany to which parents were encouraged to send their handicapped children.

Yet time is running out for Franz as his own health deteriorates, alongside the children, placed in his clinic by often loving but impoverished parents without the means or the time to look after their needs.  Children who, at first unknown to them,  suffer a terrible fate in what has been termed a rehearsal for later mass murder  

There is a lot packed in to the one-act play. This sometimes feels as if it could be a fragment of a larger, longer piece where the juxtapositions could be more pointed for the audience to work out more fully the vested interests, power struggles, compromises and cowardice.  

However the generation gap and an understandable, if detestable, callousness of inexperienced youth is plausibly delineated with the callow 23 year old ambitious Lutheran assistant to atheist Franz, Eric Schmidt (Edward Franklin).  

Germany in fact had an advanced social and welfare system, having been the first country to introduce social insurance to take care of all citizens, even though it lost its Empire and much of the means to fund the scheme after the First World War. 

The perpetrators therefore at first tried to keep the killings a secret, issuing death certificates with fake causes of death.  While there have been some documentaries, this is all a lesser known part of the National Socialist killing machine. 

The revelation of the brazen extortion involved in the subsequent bureaucracy covering up the deaths, exposed by an angry and helpless working class mother Elizabetta Pabst (Lucy Speed), elicited horrified gasps from the audience.  

A glimmer of  hope still flickers in this bleak picture when the scarlet robed aristocratic Bishop von Galen (David Yelland) comes on behalf of some of his constituents who, like Elizabetta, have come to understand what is happening. 

This is in some ways the most intellectually searching part of the play in a Shavian-like private encounter between the Catholic primate and the medic who may be compromised by his own political past. It puts the audience through almost the same process as a parent who retains hope that there can be some trust in an authority somewhere.

The Catholic bishop is a skilled theologian who holds out a sprig of hope and constructs elegant arguments condemning events he knows to be inhuman, but keeps it all carefully away from the public domain, dashing our own hopes of any moral touchstone or heroic behaviour.

Trapped between the tricked parent, the duplicitous but tormented doctor, the lofty churchman and the blinkered assistant administrator is the maid, Martha (Rebecca Johnson). She also wants to trust and find reassurance in her Catholic faith and authority figures. 

However she is still forced into harbouring justified doubts about some aspects of the regime and its perversion of communal values.

Stephen Unwin himself directs bringing clarity and precision to the proceedings. A  handsome set from Simon Higlett has shelves of grey lever arch files containing the fatal paperwork breaking up the warm wood panelling of the clinic's office. 

This is a harrowing tale of how narrow the medical profession's line can be, slipping too easily from sustaining to destroying life. While it sometimes feels a little truncated, it's a green light for a play which also challenges the ease with which we separate past actions from current-day concerns.

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