Wednesday, June 27, 2007

REVIEW: Who By Fire (The Olympia, Dublin)

The Nazi flags flying over the entrance to the Olympia Theatre were a bad sign, but the worst was confirmed by the greeters, dressed in Nazi uniforms, ordering the arriving crowd to their seats, after stamping each wrist with a number in blue ink.

Does somebody involved here really think the Holocaust makes a nice subject for a larky bit of audience participation?

A couple of hours later and the faint, dark blue stamp has faded a little, but not the impression of one of the most wrong-headed, theatrically flaccid, and constantly tasteless presentations the Olympia has ever seen.

A musical about the Holocaust is a pretty courageous endeavour, certainly, one that is fraught with many risks. But it still seems hardly credible that Who By Fire suffers from every single lapse of judgment imaginable under the circumstances, up to and including what looks very like prurience.

And that is even before the show fails by every theatrical standard.

The story, directed and written (from survivor testimony) by John McKenna, tells of a group of people brought to Auschwitz and forced into slave labour before being executed. The group includes (in perhaps the show's only interesting decision) not just Jews, but also, as did the camps, gays, communists, gypsies and, we are told, Jehovah's Witnesses.

As the group endures life at the camp, they (and their Nazi keepers) occasionally pause to sing a familiar Leonard Cohen song. Or a semi-familiar one. Because alterations have been made to Cohen's lyrics which seem like nothing short of vandalism.

"First we take the Reichstag / They we take Berlin" sings the camp commandant at one point, not for the first time stripping Cohen's work of the precise humour that makes it function.

Apparently Cohen gave permission for the inept re-writing of some of his better-known compositions, but he could hardly have understood how badly they would be performed. The daft tunes from Mel Brooks' The Producers would have resonated as usefully here.

A lean night on You're A Star would put to shame almost all the singing here. Stage design was pretty much non-existent, and the lighting plot was erratic, frequently leaving featured performers in the dark.

Who By Fire is an entirely risible endeavour, and yet impossible, given the subject matter, to respond to with laughter.

On 27.06.07,  Livelive with Joe Duffy on RTE Radio 1 hosted a debate about Who By Fire, with myself and the play's director/author, John McKenna, and several other contributors. A podcast of the program is available for download here:

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