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Ella’s Secret was presented in London, England at the Baron’s Court Theatre, directed by Edward Davies
Review of Ella’s Secret by REMOTE GOAT, London, Sunday 19 July 2015
Harris Freedman’s play tells a familiar story of the horror, displacement and trauma suffered by survivors of Nazi terror. What distinguishes Ella’s Secret from many of the others, however, is the blurred line it creates between guilt and innocence and how the re-telling of even catastrophic periods of history can be skewed to fit the storyteller’s version of events.
Freedman’s play comes from extensive research and first-hand accounts of Jewish survivors, and unusually for a staged play, the story centres around two older women. Ella is a sophisticated and urbane woman who has settled into a comfortable middle-class existence in London, the heart of a large loving family. In to this life of easy-going privilege Helga arrives unexpectedly and Ella’s world crashes around her.
Helga has travelled from Germany to ask for help on behalf of her husband Erick, a former SS Officer, who is in serious trouble. An uneasy and abrasive interaction between the two women soon develops into a conversation that tells us how both ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ have made questionable moral decisions. Ella is clearly the person who has suffered but the relationship between she and her captor, Helga’s husband, appears to have been more than victim and brute.
What Ella’s Secret does effectively is to question morality when applied to real, messy, complex life stories. Erick’s guilt is straightforward but what about his wife who claims she did not know what was going on during the war but still bears fresh bruises from a lifetime of his violence. More pertinently, do Ella’s experiences justify the decision she has taken and the secret she still keeps.
Both Pat Boothman and Peggy Mahon do a great job of conveying the complexity of the dilemma with passion, sensitivity and warmth.
REMOTE GOAT Sunday 19 July 2015
Ella’s Secret, 2 women, 1 man. At Teatro dell’Angelo
Rome, 18 March 2012 – Until March 25 at Teatro Dell’Angelo, the work of Harris Freedman, who also directed the show. Having tread the American and British stages, “Ella’s Secret” is now presented to the Italian public, with taste and great class. Two actresses, Lydia Biondi and Michetta Farinelli, represent the encounter/clash of two strong women who are inexplicably companions without knowing it. Their parallel lives, families, children and a man who like a thin red line keeps them apart and also close together, in a difficult life full of obscure truth.
The scene opens in the living room of a beautiful house in London in the 80s, in which Ella has lived for forty years. On a gray rainy morning comes a knock on the door, Helga. They have never seen each other before, never met: but a man unites them, although differently substantial for both, a former SS officer for Hitler, who for different reasons has marked their past. Ella is a German Jew, who escaped torture and the horrors of the Nazi deportations and exterminations thanks to this man who, perhaps out of compassion or simply out of love for an “inferior being”, a Jewess, helped her reach Paris, giving her the gift of liberty. Helga on the other hand, young and inexperienced, met this same man and immediately fell in love. A simple passion that lead to a long and difficult married life: she quickly discovered that he was violent, someone to fear, but impossible to abandon. The two find themselves in intense conversation, sometimes accusing each other, and at other times confiding like two old friends comparing their two different stories, complex, real and painful.
“Ella’s Secret,” through the unfolding of a long talk, tells of the horror of the war, the violence that engulfed the German people, the murderous madness of the dictatorship, the impossiblity of rebellion, escape as the only possible way to survive. An intense and poignant show, in which the actresses give the viewer a sense of veracity and profound suffering. The choice of moving the furniture is beautiful, as if to emphasize the passage of time, the changing state of mind. The moment in which the conversation takes on the flavour of interrogation is faultless: bull’s eye lighting, the sound of marching, coldness and weakness. A powerful text full of history. Words that reconstruct a difficult past that can not and should not be forgotten, in a never-ending tension to retain the atrocious experiences that brutally marked the last century.
Until March 25
From Thursday to Saturday 21.00, Sunday at 17.30
Full ticket € 15, concessions € 11
ELLA’S SECRET, written and directed by Harris Freedman. is staged at Rome’s RIdotto Theatre Dell’Angelo from March 8 to 25.
Already presented in the U.S. and in Great Britain, this play deals with one of the fundamental themes of the twentieth century: the theme of the Holocaust and the massive wound that this atrocity has dealt individually and collectively, as well as philosophically and spiritually.
Freedman’s text has at least two qualities of immense value. First, it is concerned with people. It does not try to make personal claims for or against something, it does not indulge in rhetoric, but tries to build two authentic characters, people with fears and everyday needs. People who have suffered the violence of history and who are not able to make sense of the effects of the horror of Nazi persecution in their lives. The second quality of Ella’s Secret lies in having given voice to two women. The author could have made a different choice: for example, he could have presented the victim and perpetrator, possibly involving the spouse of the victim, as Ariel Dorfman did in “Death and the Maiden” (made into a film by Roman Polanski in 1995). In ‘Ella’s Secret’ the confrontation is between the victim and the current wife of the persecutor, although here it is a very particular persecutor. He is someone whom we never see, someone that has saved Ella in some way. At the same time he is a man who is guilty of war crimes.
There are no really plausible reconciliations or reparations possible. The two women study and test each other with words, as in a ritual dance in which the predator can become the prey and the knife is never firmly in the hand of one or the other protagonist. In a spatial sense Freedman does an excellent job of managing the relationship between the physical and emotional distance of the two figures on stage, distances that remain elastic until the end, as they approach and separate. Entrusting two women, ‘Ella’s Secret’ has a profound emotional component in a visceral sense more than just a literal sense, a rivalry that is part of the female universe.
A show therefore intense and satisfying, with the finale of a thriller. Not in the content, because this is not the aim of the piece, but certainly in the staging, thanks to the generous contribution of Lydia Biondi and Michetta Farinelli.
Ella’s Secret: a warning against indifference
ANDREA POCOSGNICH March 11, 2012
Examining the abomination of the Holocaust always makes sense, here we find the foundation of a civilised conscience. And just when we believe we know everything about the Holocaust, and feel immune to any kind of revisionism, or moral excuse, pretext, art suddenly melts the hardened conscience of well-meaning thinkers and throws the incorruptible into crisis. This is the purpose of theatre that is simply constructed, but charged with profound meaning and questions.
Ella’s Secret, written and directed by Harris Freedman (author from New York who now lives in Italy), returns to the past bloodshed starting from the present. Two ordinary women, strangers to one another, each representing their family, their race, and each dragging the heavy weight of history and profound questions behind them. The present is demolished and the past is a bottomless abyss into which one can fall.
Ella – a light and intense Lydia Biondi, also the translator of the text – is a German of Jewish descent who fled to London from Nazi Germany forty years earlier, and made her escape with the help of an SS officer who had fallen in love with her. On a typically rainy London morning, the equilibrium in which Ella lives is spoiled by a visit. Helga (Michetta Farinelli, engaged in a very difficult and rough role), the current wife of that SS officer, arrives from Munich. As always, the past has the power and sound of an avalanche and memory assumes the shape of atonement. In the small space of the Ridotto Teatro Dell’Angelo the stage time is paced by the meetings of these two women. Helga has come to ask Ella to meet with her husband who has been mentally unstable since his release from prison. According to Helga, her husband could recover his sanity if Ella meets with him. The absent figure of the ex-SS is like a shadow with the weight of a heavy boulder.
We immediately understand that the entire episode is a well thought-out pretext to examine human actions and their consequences. As the two women have tea and exchange simple details of their families, a small duel develops about the reasons for the Holocaust and the guilt of the SS who participated. Like others convicted for murder of Jews, Helga defends her husband with the most classic of speeches: he was only obeying orders, if he didn’t kill those Jews someone else would have killed them anyway, if he had refused to kill the Jews he would have been killed. How many times have we asked ourselves this question, not only in order to better understand the extermination at the hands of Hitler, but every time we are faced with man’s abuse of his fellow man? Every time we try to justify that abuse, especially when enacted by a representative of the state, our immediate response is always the same: he could not disobey orders. And our role as witnesses is what? Because the other important question around which the show is built is the guilt of those who have always known, were innocent according to the law, but were not morally innocent. Those who weren’t among the soldiers rounding up the Jews and didn’t make the laws, carry the greatest guilt because of their indifference to the fate of others, they stood by and watched when a Jew was beaten and dragged away and then entered his house and carried off his possessions, Ella tells her unexpected guest. Can forgiveness be contemplated for the perpetrators of those massacres?
Freedman’s production does not seek answers, in fact it cultivates doubts, and despite the small theatre in which it is presented – a narrow space with a low ceiling, which might have prompted more frugal directorial choices – it is able to penetrate the viewer’s intimate conscience, that is, if the viewer does not wish to remain deaf and indifferent.
on stage until March 25, 2011
Ridotto Teatro Dell’Angelo
with Lydia Biondi and Michetta Farinelli
directed by Harris Freedman
assistant director Giovanni Morassutti
Lydia Biondi translation
Lighting Designer Dario Aggioli
Cultural Association mtm mimoteatromovimento
by Harris Freedman
Directed by – Harris Freedman
Ridotto Teatro Dell’Angelo
from 08.03.2012 to 25.03.2012
Finally arriving on the Italian scene is “Ella’s secret” by Harris Freedman, in a translation by Lydia Biondi, and directed by the author.
On a quiet Sunday morning, Ella receives an unexpected visit from Helga, a woman she has never met before. Both their lives have been affected by the same Nazi SS officer. Helga has a mission, Ella has a secret. Or could it be a nightmare…
Read more …
Finally arriving on the Italian scene is “Ella’s secret” by Harris Freedman, in a translation by Lydia Biondi, and directed by the author.
Where history and story-telling meet dense narratives arise. Especially when the chapter of history is the Nazi era and when the narratives are the interconnected stories of two women, a German Helga, and a Jewess Ella. It is the perfect occasion for a close confrontation between two diverse points of view about the darkest moment in contemporary European conscience. The show, divided into several scenes depicted in the same room, framed by different perspectives, results in a dialogue-inquest in which one woman tries to dig into the history of the other and into her deepest convictions. Especially regarding the Law, its fundamental relationship to both the German people and to the Jews. The inquest ultimately reveals that the destinies of Ella and Helga (like those of their respective peoples) are inextricably linked.
The text is dense and the performances are tightly woven in a crescendo of pressing dialogue that challenges agreement between the two excellent protagonists: Lydia Biondi (yes, the translator) and Michetta Farinelli. The two keep our attention rapt for an hour and a half, giving physical and emotional presence to the characters created by Freedman, characters who hesitate to speak although they are eager to, pretend to leave but betray the desire to stay, would like to live in the present but find the call of the past irresistible.
An integral part of the production is the music and sound effects that take you back in time and underscore the moods of the characters on a stage decorated with sobriety. But the true stars of Freedman’s show, more than the music and perhaps even more than the good interpretations of the actresses, are the words, stories told, the indispensable – never repetitive – instruments of memory.
Ella’s Secret. when memories of the Holocaust lead to liberation.
di Pino Moroni
London, 1980’s: reflections of the human condition on important historical events.
Two women (one Jewish and one German), opposed ideologically but with a common secret, search inside themselves for the hidden truths of the ’30s-’40s: those of the tragedy of the Holocaust and its inevitable consequences.
In the Small Teatro Dell’Angelo, Harris Freedman, award-winning author and theater director, an English gentleman but with the shy concrete ways of a New Yorker, was in the audience to watch his staging of “Ella’s secret” in Italian.
“Mr. Freedman?” He is sitting next to me. “Yes,” he said. I replied in Italian. “Can we talk about your history and your direction?” Unfortunately there is no time, the show begins.
London in the ’80s was a modern city, with a rampant international financial scene, and renewal taking place in every sector: social, urban and artistic. A city that attracted the younger generation, with a continued increase in population due to the great performance of the economy and its increased positive image.
This is what everyone remembers.
But the room we live in, immersed in the small theatre, is that of a person between 50 and 60 years who still listens to opera arias on the radio, has an old desk, an old-fashioned coat rack, offers tea and sandwiches for lunch, and waits for a visit from her children and grandchildren. She couldn’t be more quietly middle-class, old-fashioned. She is an escapee from the Nazi massacre of the Jewish community of Cologne (1938), who was able to reach London with the help of Eric, a Nazi SS officer. She is now married to an Englishman and lives a normal life, like many others, having by now removed all memory of her past.
In this static situation, untouched by the dynamic, renewed outside world, Helga breaks in. She is the wife of Eric, the SS officer, and lived in Hitler’s Germany, under the laws enacted by him, with the violence, the war of extermination, the madness. Obediently, without a minimum of criticism, pretending not to know what was dramatically happening. Like many other Germans, indifferent.
For the two women it is the moment of truth, a reckoning with the past.
They judge one another, in an ambiguity of roles between victim and victimizer. They attract and repel each other, always following the two parallel planes made by daily life in the 80s and the historical context of the ’30s -’40s. In a circular movement, made of historical analysis and personal mistakes, increasingly obsessive, they find the music, rhythmic tension and a finale of painful revelation, which is also a liberation for both.
The most disturbing element of the set are two albums of family photographs on a table in which the two performers find similarities as mothers, despite their opposing ideologies. Sometimes the two planes intersect in a dramatic personal-historical tale such as the murder of Ella’s grandfather in the ‘Night of Broken Glass’, when Jews were persecuted and even murdered by ordinary people, or the death of Helga’s father , killed in the war. But the object of contention is always Eric, the SS officer, the two women accuse him and absolve him with profound feeling. With intense acting, deaf tonalities, rancorous tonalities, pressing tonalities melting sometimes into polite, respectful, and intimate tones.
In the final scene (thanks to the intimacy of the small theatre) I had before me the expressive, emotional and happily fulfilled face of Lydia Biondi, who created, along with Antonio Calenda, Piera Degli Esposti and Jimmy Gazzolo, the first Roman theater off the “Theatre 101” and founded the first school of mime, then merged with Roy Bosier in MTM (mimoteatromovimento).
Artistic Director of Fontanone Summer in the years 1996/2006, Biondi has worked, like the other actress Michetta Farinelli, in theater workshops, in television and films with directors of note.
Before the writer and director Harris Freedman was surrounded by friends and spectators I captured this impression: “A performance that made me as happy as those in English (his plays have been performed in Great Britain, the United States and in other Anglophone countries) because of the acting of the two actresses and the translation by Lydia Biondi, who understood the spirit of the work. “
And Lydia Biondi: “It is not easy to bring forward a text so intense, circular and repetitive, but always with different words, to achieve the ultimate scope.
One risks, in the dynamics of such a representation, to circle ahead or behind the timing of the text and this clockwork device only works with a maximum of effort and concentration.