Theatre review: Of Words and War
Write, write the truth, Louise tells herself as she tells her co-workers at a German airforce base near Hamburg.
This, in essence, is the nub of Nicola Germaine’s debut play.
Based on the story of the playwright’s grandmother, Elsa — one of the brave young women serving her country in the final days of World War II — Of Words and War is a powerful, distressing, and yet heartwarming piece of theatre.
It is 1944. Louise, Elsa, Lena and Annika are filling important communication roles in service of their nation and of their Führer. Obscured from the real motivations behind the armed conflict, from the dimensions of the horror, and the imminent fall of the regime, they are single-minded in their loyalty and are duty-bound in their devotion to the Schutzstaffel, obeying orders, observing the regimen.
But Germaine’s work is not so much about the politics of the War as it is about the friendships amongst the four women during the time, their petty jealousies, their personal lives, their hopes, and their dreams.
Despite briefly touching on the destructive nature of the carnage, the brutality of the Nazis, and the stench of corruption polluting the system, the play wants to examine the impact of the struggle on the girls’ relationships — the pain as a result of those impacts — and on their creative writing processes.
Michael Coe’s excellent design distills the oppressive, clandestine nature of warfare into an austere dormitory and a spartan communications room — the ceiling overhang adding to the quality of peril. This, along with Nick Roche’s clever soundscape, offers up a milieu that is appropriately dramatic, regimented and menacing.
Director Karyn Lee Greig creates some memorable images, but the one — no, two — scenes that count as the most indelible will have to be the interrogation sequences when the girls are questioned about Louise’s out-of-character reticence.
There are weaknesses in the piece, however: in amidst the series of narratives from each young woman (as they embark on their writing assignments), the prominence of the event that is supposed to alter their fiercely-held convictions seems to be somewhat watered down; the simultaneous enacting of those narrations feels a little unnatural; and the momentum appears to falter halfway through the performance.
Still, as a work on the lesser-discussed (even taboo) German perspective, Of Words and War is a strong debut supported by a talented cast: as Elsa, Georgia Kelly finely portrays the loyal subject and the distraught friend; Alyson Gale is convincing as the woman of the world from a troubled home, Lena; and Jessica Bassano, their earnest, if naive, compatriot, Annika.
But the final acclaim will no doubt have to go to Stephanie Lillis. As Louise, who reacts to the epiphany with moving clarity, Lillis imbues her character with an inspiring love of words, of literature, and of writing that we see vividly mirrored in the playwright as well.
Write, write the truth, Louise tells herself, as Germaine does so too.