The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was a best-selling book for young adults, then it was a film and now Northern Ballet has turned it into a dance piece.
But, hang on a minute, when the book about an unlikely relationship between the nine-year son of a Nazi concentration camp commandant and an inmate of the same age was published one rabbi called it a ‘profanation’. His point was no nine-year children were just wandering around Auschwitz as they were murdered on arrival because they were of no economic value. So it’s tricky source material for long time Northern Ballet associate Daniel de Andrade to be taking on for his full-length ballet for the company.
On the whole, he does a decent job of treating this subject with the gravity it needs aside from a couple of artistic misjudgements. One comes early on as a group of Berlin Jews are rounded up for the death camps, but the choreography lacks clarity or any real sense of the sort of terror those people must have been feeling.
We’re in Berlin because nine-year-old Bruno is waiting to go to a place he childishly mispronounces as ‘out-with’ as his father has just been appointed commandant by Hitler. Once in Poland a bored Bruno makes his way to the electrified fence miraculously free of any guards and forms a friendship with the starving Shmuel who is on the other side of the wire. As this is a death camp there is a tragic outcome for the boys which is handled subtly by the cast.
Given the debate over the book, you might have thought the creatives would have tried for some historical accuracy. For some reason, de Andrade makes the commandant a general when in fact it was lower ranking officers and soldiers who pulled the triggers and gassed innocent families as high ranking Nazis like Heydrich gave the orders from afar.
Athletic soloist Kevin Poeung makes the most of Bruno leaping high and true moving fluidly around the stage bringing to life a spoiled boy incapable of seeing the horrors around him and Filippo di Vilio is equally strong in the much smaller role as his playmate Shmuel. That disparity in stage time means it is not clear to see how the two become firm friends as hard as the two dancers try and when the boys dance together as the fence between them disappears it just doesn’t work,
Javier Torres as the Commandant and Hannah Bateman as his wife both dance strongly essaying their troubled marriage, but most of the first act labours the point that he is a family man - although there is no sense of how he disconnects that life from murdering millions of people. It stretches Hannah Arendt’s observation about the banality of evil to breaking point. There is also too much emphasis on an affair between the commandant’s wife and the sadistic murderer Lieutenant Kotler danced with real menace by promising young dancer Sean Bates.
The biggest misjudgement is the Fury character which comes from Bruno’s mispronunciation of Fuhrer. Despite the impressive Mlindi Kulashe’s sinuous movements the Fury’s bizarre PVC and gas mask fetish costume just jars every time he appears. Quite why the company didn’t revise this ill-conceived look for what is actually an unnecessary extra character is a mystery.
It’s a shame as Tim Mitchell’s stark lighting adds to the dancer's mood of despair as does Gary Yershon’s atonal eerie score adding some menace when dancers move painfully as the inmates struggling to survive in a hell on earth.
Despite its flaws, the dancing from a cast clearly determined to tell this difficult story truthfully is of the highest order and Northern Ballet are right to create new work like this challenging audiences to step outside their comfortable bubbles. It is a work that seems particularly apt when Nazis are openly marching round Charlottesville.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is at West Yorkshire Playhouse until Saturday 9th September. To book 0113 2137700 or www.wyp.org.uk
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 5th September 2017
North West End Rating: ★★★