The comfortable atmosphere of the ever-genial Kalk Bay Theatre was challenged from the first second of Sie Weiss Alles as the lights went on and the audience was confronted by James Cairns, red and black swastika eerily blazing, stating “The Russians are close”.
The urgent opening line sets the tone for a multi-faceted political romantic drama that transposes the audience into a bare interrogation room in Berlin during the dramatic collapse of the Third Reich. The text, written by Cairns, engages with this complex history in an accurate yet satirical manner.
The set is stark and functional: a table, a bottle of vodka, a gun and two actors reveal a microcosm of a chaotic and decaying Germany. James Cairns, as the Nazi officer, faces an existential crisis that forces him to reflect on ideas of war, political identity, responsibility, agency and justice in the face of the collapse of a regime he has supported.
One would have thought it would be difficult to empathize with an SS officer responsible for gross crimes against humanity. But Cairns is irresistibly charming as a dry and somewhat clumsy ex-theatre-critic-turned-Nazi-cleric. Equipped with his signature wit and physical comedic ability Cairns creates a character who soulfully reflects on his existence as an “evil, evil German” as he tries to save the life of his love interest, a captive stage actress, by convincing his superiors that “sie weiss alles” (she knows everything).
Taryn Bennett offers perfect pitch as the young ingénue whose promising stage career has been derailed by a war that shows no respect for human life let alone art. Lithe and enigmatic, Bennett embodies the stage actress who quotes from Shakespeare and moves and gesticulates as if she were constantly under a glowing spotlight. This chanteuse-like persona is paradoxically set against her status as a prisoner facing possible death, a woman torn between keeping a deadly secret and possibly saving herself and her Nazi captor.
The romantic relationship and history between the two characters is emotionally complex with coquettish flirtation interspersed with musings on whether or how they might be killed. Never was an interrogation so charming or deception and violence so coy. There is only one certainty: the knowledge that “at any time anyone could be lying about anything”.
On another level we hear Cairns’ brief reflections on being a Nazi embedded amongst the witty dialogue that encapsulates the energetic and playful relationship between the two characters. The result is chilling. The self-proclaimed “paper pusher for the Fatherland” draws a parallel between himself and Shakespeare’s tortured prince Hamlet with the heart-wrenching pronouncement “I wish my mother had never borne me”, a key line from Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy.
This intertextual link to Hamlet is a continuing thread as the characters anxiously prepare to re-enact a scene from Shakespeare’s play for a superior Nazi officer: a “play within a play” that forces the audience into the role voyeur, participant and critic.
The text is rich and witty, the acting sharp, clean and charming, the narrative explorative, multi-faceted and absorbing. The actors and director Tamara Guhrs should be highly commended for this Silver Ovation-winning play that is a thrilling, multi-dimensional experience. Within the narrative the personal becomes political and the collective experience of history, war and politics becomes unique and accessible. Through the intricate relationship presented by the two characters, I felt compelled to reflect on the complex dynamics between perpetrators and victims within the countless episodes of violence, deception and gross crimes against humanity throughout history. And along with being moved by a thoughtful and provocative theatrical experience I left the theatre equipped with a much appreciated refresher on WWII history.
by Kelly-Eve Koopman
Sie Weiss Alles runs at the Kalk Bay Theatre until 2 June 2012.