On April 5, 1944, Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “I want to go on living even after my death!” Her desire — and expectation — was that she’d become a writer and see the publication of her diary, but of course, everyone knows instead how her story ended. And though her’s one of the most well known voices from the Second World War, the Stratford Festival decided to stage a production of “The Diary of Anne Frank”, which opened on May 28.
Like “Titanic”, “Lincoln”, and “Zero Dark Thirty”, there are some historic events so ingrained in our psyches that recreating them in the arts is a difficult task. How do you keep even a modicum of suspense when everyone knows the ending? The story of Anne Frank, a teenager who died shortly before the camp she’d been sent to was liberated, is one of our the first forays into education about the Holocaust, with the gregarious girl making for a heartbreaking, yet highly relatable, figure. Ask anyone on the street, and the odds are overwhelmingly positive they’re familiar with her life.
But the trick of good theatre is to make your audience believe a different ending is in store, a happy ending where the flow of tears can be staunched and that the cold dread you’re feeling will soon be gone. Stratford’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank”, adapted by Wendy Kesselman and directed by Jillian Keiley, keeps the tension taut for two hours, easing up at the end when the infectious joy in the attic spreads throughout the theatre. Alhough we know the Nazis eventually capture the attic’s inhabitants, we momentarily forget about it as the adults play cards and Anne (Sara Farb), her sister Margot (Shannon Taylor) and Peter (André Morin) giddily cavort upstairs. It’s a nice feeling and a welcome respite from the horrors that have come before, and it’s just about enough to silence that little voice in your head.
Even before “The Diary of Anne Frank” officially began, it’s clear this play would be different. The entire cast stood in a row on stage and talked about the set design (Brette Gerecke, who worked with Keiley on “Alice Through the Looking-Glass” last year) and what each piece would do during the play. After the brief run-through, each one came forward to introduce themselves and tell a little story from when they were around Anne’s age. Laura Schutt, who was in the chorus, particularly endeared herself to the audience when she displayed a deep level of honesty and authenticity. It was an unusual approach, but one that helped to immediately introduce the players to the audience and establish a rapport before the first line of dialogue was spoken.
But boy, when that dialogue started, did it ever pack an emotional wallop. A handful of moments during the Frank and van Daan’s time in the attic are acted out, with each actor coming forward to the front of the stage to read an excerpt from the book. Days flash by with only the dimming and brightening of artificial light (Leigh Ann Vardy), never the sun and moon, to indicate it, and the shifting wood stairs, table, beds and attic swiftly guide us from scene to scene. A slight and consistent feeling of claustrophobia sits on everything like a thick layer of dust; there’s barely room for anyone to turn around before bumping into another, and though the attic always feels crowded, there are still metaphysical places in which each person can steal a brief moment of privacy.
The confines of the room never feel more believable than when an unfamiliar thud of boots sounds downstairs and both families freeze, with the audience hushed and not breathing until it’s safe to do so. The effect is incredible — although we’re the audience and they’re the actors, they’ve cast a spell on us that makes us part of their story.
What’s also impossible to ignore is just how isolating the experience was. Miep Gies (Maev Beaty) and Mr. Kraler (Ryan Field) are the attic dwellers’ only human contacts to the outside world, bringing with them news of the war along with potatoes, red heeled shoes, cigarettes, a radio and another Jew, the dentist Mr. Dussel (Christopher Morris, who delicately balances between refined, fussy and irritable). It’s a full house, with the two Frank girls, their father, Otto (an excellent Joseph Ziegler), and mother, Edith (Lucy Peacock, whose acting is top notch in its restraint), and the van Daan family: Peter (Morin), his fur coat-wearing mother (Yanna McIntosh) and his chain-smoking father (Kevin Bundy). There’s also a cat, Moushie, but it stays tucked away inside a picnic basket for the entire play.
For 10 hours each day, the octet must adhere to absolute silence; after 6 pm, they’re “free” to cook dinner (a revolving variety of potatoes and beans), celebrate Hanukkah, practice dancing and listen to updates on the radio. Each cast member wonderfully portrays the simultaneous hope and frustration of their sequestration, with Farb, tasked with the lion’s share of the work, winning us over with her eventually charming feistiness. It also helps she bears more than a passing resemblance to the real Anne Frank, and it’s easy to believe Farb as she sprawls out over her journal on the floor or twirls around and in between the others.
The inclusion of an a cappella chorus humming Jonathan Monro’s compositions behind the back slatted wall was a bit of an odd choice, as it wasn’t clear exactly how it added anything to “The Diary of Anne Frank”. Other than being a pleasant and beautifully harmonized sound, it didn’t add anything to the play except a layer of background noise. And for some, Gerecke’s all-wood slat design may disappoint, but the drabness and uniformity of it lent itself well to the feelings of despair and claustrophobia, whereas a richer design would have seemed inappropriately bright.
At the end, Ziegler’s Otto wanders into the bare attic, looks around at its emptiness in sorrow and bewilderment, and talks about what happened to the members of his families. At one moment, he briefly tears up before collecting himself, and it’s almost as though it’s Ziegler who’s emotionally distraught, not Otto. And to cap things off, he gently picks up his daughter’s diary from the floor and places it into the left pocket of his jacket, before reaching into the right to remove a real copy of Anne Frank’s diary, and hands it to an audience member in the front row.
If you manage to leave the Avon Theatre with dry eyes after “The Diary of Anne Frank” is finished, then there’s a good chance it was from watching the play through the insides of your eyelids. Stratford has created a play that hits so deeply inside, it almost feels wrong to applaud at the end, and the impact of Anne Frank’s story remains just as powerful as when it was first published.