5 September 2019
When Matthew Xia first spoke to me about Amsterdam, it was clear that while this is a play triggered by Europe then, it is overwhelmingly a piece for Europe now.
It is an unpaid gas bill from 1944 - seemingly mundane but deeply poignant - that reframes the discourse around the Holocaust, not by re-opening history books but by opening a window to the present.
It encourages us to consider Europe in 2019 - a Europe which stokes the conditions of intolerance once again; where those who are ‘other’ - non-homogenous - pay the price for dangerously divisive politics. So much should be different, yet so much remains the same.
Maya Arad Yasur’s protagonist - you will not learn her name - is, like me, an ‘unseen other’, a white Jewish woman. One of the most prevalent markers of my identity is invisible to the people I encounter and so it is left to me to determine how they see me, whether they judge me, whether they know I am other at all. It is a status I have found inexplicably complicated all my life. It breeds insecurity and speculation. Every new interaction presents a choice around whether to reveal myself or not, whether it is necessary, relevant or safe to do so. This is never more so than in times, as we find ourselves now, where the flames of hatred burn their path across the place we know - and have always known - as home.
As you are taken inside the protaganist’s thoughts, what transpires on stage treads an unmarked line between her paranoid speculations and the reality that has fuelled them, then and now. She feels pressure to eat like a native, think like a native, give birth like a native so no one knows she is a ‘shtetl face’ Jew. But why should it matter if they do? Is this a case of encounters cementing her fears of how she is perceived or does she, in fact, perceive her fears?
When I was a child, I sat at my grandmother’s feet as she carefully introduced me to my heritage - to her own youth in Berlin, the Nazi conditioning that tore apart her adolescence and set in course her lonely journey, as a teenage refugee, to Britain. She arrived penniless and alone. Her family would be wiped out by the Holocaust. Other than becoming a mother, nothing has shaped my outlook on life more profoundly. It can be no coincidence that we meet our protagonist as she is about to give birth too. These are fundamental markers of our identity, of us as Jewish women. We derive pride and strength from them but they leave us vulnerable.
Seventy-five per cent of the Dutch-Jewish population were killed in the Holocaust. Complicity, silence, hateful rhetoric that wears the mask of populism, all played as big a part as the evil that spawned it. Would the modern Amsterdam our protagonist encounters, against the settings of her daily life, allow its citizens to experience racial, religious or homophobic conditioning again? Is it already allowing it? Or is it in her head?
Our identities exist in intertwined forms: how we view ourselves and the construct of how other people gaze upon us. Amsterdam’s cast and creative team are made up entirely of people who are identified as ‘other’: Jewish men, Jewish women, Black men, Greek, African, South American, LGBT+, Irish, Traveller, Disabled. Each and everyone would have been a victim in 1940s Amsterdam. Their experiences now fuel the portrayal of this piece just as those of their ancestors then. Their realities of Europe today, their fears and speculations, could be the protaganist’s, could be the playwright’s, could be any one of ours.
Deborah Linton is a UK-based journalist and writer. Her grandmother, Susi Linton, arrived, from Berlin, as a refugee, in 1939. www.mywritefulplace.co.uk
Amsterdam is at the Orange Tree Theatre 6 September - 7 October in a co-production with Actors Touring Company and Theatre Royal Plymouth