Hatty Preston’s production of ‘Ghetto’ is bold, moving and undeniably unsettling. The play focuses on the lives of a group of Jewish actors, living in a ghetto during World War II and the constraints and struggles that come with that. The ghetto, represented by ominously backlit barbed wire looms over the stage. It constricts the actors to a small playing area, effectively creating a sense of confined space and claustrophobia, which leaves the audience feeling slightly on edge.
This tension is emphasised throughout the performance. The characters themselves are understandably edgy, constantly under threat from the marvellously and impossibly cruel Kittel, played by Florian Göbel. Kittel, although a barbarous SS Commander, adds a much needed touch of (dark) humour to the play, when at times the atmosphere becomes almost too tense. Humour also comes in the form of Lauren Grant’s Dummy, a lovable and yet mildly irritating ventriloquist’s dummy, who gurns and grins in equal measure. This lightheartedness could seem out of place, but really is a welcome relief to the harrowing subject matter. In fact, I would have appreciated a bit more, just to break up the large chunks of emotionally heavy dialogue.
These dark and upsetting themes place great demands upon the actors to convey believable emotion, something which they certainly deliver. Will Vickers’ Gens is a standout performance, with his explosive monologue towards the end of the second half packing an emotional punch. Music also plays a big part in setting the tone for this production. A simple piano score means that most of the audience’s attention becomes focused on the dialogue. The singing is also an effective means of communicating the character’s grief, their voices wobbling in accordance with their emotional states. It is hard not to be convinced by their plight.
However despite this realistic portrayal of emotion, not all elements of the play were as convincing. There is one scene in particular, in which some of the cast simulate various sexual acts that feels rather gratuitous and a bit detracting. It distracted from the dialogue of the scene and rather than being titillating, felt a little crude. Although this was only in one scene, the memory seemed to linger throughout the rest of the performance, which off-balanced the solemn tone somewhat. However, this did not upset the conclusion of the play, which is loaded with tension.
‘Ghetto’ is not light hearted and it is certainly not easy viewing. Rather, it is intelligent, confrontational and thoroughly disconcerting. It is something which will stay with you, long after you have left the theatre.