Friday, May 01, 2015

After Dresden (by Philip Orr) in Belvoir Players Studio Theatre (until Saturday 2)

Our individual and community capacity for empathy seems fundamental to how we deal with the past.

For Reverend Ray Davey, his work as padre/chaplain to British Prisoners of War in Saxony (near the city of Dresden) fed into his decision to open the Corrymeela Community up in Ballycastle in 1965, before Northern Ireland’s own Troubles erupted. Together with visits to the Iona and Italian Agape communities, his experience of camp guards and local residents in Germany, and his reflections on the Allied bombing raids in February 1945 that turned the German city into a firestorm drove his passion to “embrace difference, heal division and enable reconciliation”.

Philip Orr’s play After Dresden opened last night in a short run by the Belvoir Players. It contrasts the fictional O’Hara family’s reaction to a young man’s death in the Troubles with the wartime memories of Rev Tom Moore (based on Ray Davey’s exercise book diaries written in Germany).

As padre, Tom Moore has a degree of freedom to travel between prison camps in the region. He is unexpectedly befriended by Frau Klein in the village of Hohnstein who invites him into her house – “We German’s aren’t all evil you know” and learns about her attitudes towards her homeland and Herr Hitler. Her son died fighting on the Eastern Front at Stalingrad, and now her husband has been drafted.

She explains that when her pastor says “let us pray for our village” “many of us remember the prisoners in our prayers each Sunday”.
“It is not easy to pray for the defeat of the country we love.”
Frau Klein’s acts of invisible resistance include illicit listening to BBC radio broadcasts which inform her about the concentration camp at Auschwitz (denied by local Nazis) and encourage her that the war is near an end. Yet she fears that Russians will soon arrive in the area and knows that their acts of revenge on Germans will be brutal.

One of the play’s crucial moments comes as the padre and a British Major PoW listen to and watch the waves of Allied bombers flying over nearby Dresden. One man’s compassion for the inevitable casualties amongst civilians, refugees and the British PoWs he visits in the city is sharply juxtaposed with the other’s jubilation that the RAF are bringing “the fires of hell” down on the enemy. It is estimated that 22-25,000 people died in the raids, with 6.5 square kilometres of the city destroyed in the fires. The most sickening line of the play is:
“As raids go, it’s a Rembrandt.”
Vincent Vyce’s simple and bijou set provides two ‘rooms’ on an wooden-slatted oval floor along with an elevated garden bench. The stand out performances of the evening come from Aidan Hughes (playing the young Tom Moore); Austin Branagh (older Tom Moore) with his excellent eyebrows and sense of timing; Helina King who so confidently inhabits the role and accent of Frau Klein; and Gwen Scott (Siobhan O’Hara) who plays the sister of the murdered man and spent time in the Corrymeela-like "The Rock" community.

While a fictional script – albeit heavily based upon Ray Davey’s diaries – the play manages to steer away from a happy ending with all the loose ends tied up.   

Trevor Gill’s direction brings about some beautiful moments, particularly one scene where a monologue is seamlessly split between the old and young Tom Moore actors. Some of the minor parts don’t spend enough time on stage to make a big impact or round out their characters. Still, it’s a tight play that succeeds in remembering the bombing of Dresden, the life of Ray Davey and the formation of the Corrymeela Community in a manner that does so without a neat ending and without shying away from the complexity of conflict.

Four years ago at a public reading of an earlier draft of the play, I commented:
Philip Orr’s play constructs a moving and believable war time vignette, drawing the audience into the friendship that develops in Frau Klein’s front room. As we look through a window into the German house, the play helps us see our local conflict reflected in the glass. Can we learn how to understand our society’s pain through other’s experiences in even greater conflicts?
My 2011 interview with Philip Orr (which includes scenes from the original read through, not the Belvoir Players version!) explains more of the background to the play’s background and themes.

After Dresden continues in the Belvoir Players Studio Theatre until Saturday 2 May. Update – Friday night’s performance is sold out and will be followed by a post-show discussion with playwright Philip Orr, director Trevor Gill, Gladys Ganiel [read Gladys’ preview on Slugger O’Toole ... and her review] and UU’s Duncan Morrow. Some tickets (£9) are still available for Saturday evening.

Photos via Brian O'Neill.

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