Produced by STIGMAcollective, Lithuania / Poland / UK, 60min
Voila! Europe Festival, London | November 13-22, 2020
Nick Awde | THE X REPORT
I can see this absurdist double act presenting something of a Marmite choice for theatregoers. After all, a play starring the last pair of shoes worn by Magda Goebbels, the wife of Joseph Hitler’s propaganda minister, isn’t going to rock everyone’s tree.
Handily I like Marmite…
After Magda’s suicide in Hitler’s bunker in Berlin at the end of the Second World War, the shoes – Rosa French and Francesca Isherwood, who Ant and Dec-like are mostly right one and left one respectively – end up being passed from woman to woman.
A Soviet gives them up after an abortion or they’re stolen from a corpse, while their snobbery and racial superiority beliefs dictate their acceptance or scorn aimed at each new owner. Despite their Nuremberg trial (or because of it), they’ve never felt the need (or pressure) to lose their Nazi ideology right up today. Nor indeed have they lost their ability to speak up at every step – like all good extremists, it’s always someone else’s fault.
And so the shoes moan, ripe, grimace, get their hopes up, deflate. They analyse, scrutinise, criticise their owners’ coutures, foibles, strengths and failings – and always their perceived racial credentials. We realise that the pair’s never deflected sense of superiority and self-right reflects the postwar world that has come full circle to our own Brave New World where the most basic facts are challenged by the all-in-name Nazi governments that have sprung up across Europe and beyond in the past decade. But, as our outspoken shoes slyly declare, were those facts ever right in the first place?
Maybe Magda’s been reincarnated as her own shoes, her own personal hell. Certainly that cyclical idea is key here for right left with heel, seen in the minimalist staging where, with impressive memory, French and Isherwood begin and finish each other’s sentences and thoughts, overlapping and bouncing off each physically and verbally. Their skill and focus in both areas makes this a winning performance that works as emotionally as it does technically.
In this STIGMAcollective production, Rasa Niurkaite’s direction makes those words and movement embody what shoes naturally do, a rippled coordination that at no point allows the minimalism to become static, but fuels and reinforces the grim humour that laces this tale.
Every Covid-era show has its production story – and for Voila!, STIGMAcollective took the decision to record their stage version in London’s Cockpit Theatre as if for an audience, relying not on camera shortcuts but the power of the actors and quirkiness of the text. Bar the occasional well-considered transition edit and aided by Connor McLean’s music, the result is a recording that proves that live performance on a stage can easily overcome the limits of the camera.
I think I got this right, but Sebastian Majewski’s play, originally written in Polish, hasn’t been produced in his home country Poland. But absurdist plays like this are less about the language and more about the way they lend themselves to staging, and here he’s come up with a gift for the STIGMAcollective team that they slickly run with.
What I’m uneasy about is the call on the English translation. On a minor level, for a play with such an English/British delivery, it would have been good to have debugged the distracting Americanisms, which seem sloppy or forced and anachronistic, tripping up the action.
On a more fundamental level, there’s the racist language used by the shoes – admittedly not a lot and sure it’s in keeping with the characters and may be acceptable in other languages, but its use encourages the wrong sort of familiarity. This isn’t an argument for censorship but artistic responsibility in acknowledging there’s no traction to be gained by putting such language before an audience who aren’t there to be provoked – particularly when the rest of the script makes things perfectly clear. Racist and other linked terms in most cases need to be put on stage by people who these refer to – people who state the right to that response. There’s no truth to be gained when others do it – and, since this show successfully makes its point on every level, it doesn’t need it.