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ADDRESS UNKNOWN – Soho Theatre, London.

address unknown“It is the most effective indictment of Nazism to appear in fiction,” proclaimed The New York Times Book Review of American author Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s 1938 epistolary novella Address Unknown. Seventy-five years later, her work still packs a powerful punch in the form of an engrossing one-act play at the Soho Theatre, which has diverged from its new-writing brief for a piece that feels eerily contemporary in its indictment of Government surveillance and censorship and its cautionary tale of a country in recession swayed by far-right politics.

Most epistolary works lose their letter-writing basis when transferred to a dramatic medium, but adaptor Frank Dunlop stays faithful to Taylor’s premise. The story of Nazism’s rise is filtered through the letters between friends and business partners Max (in America) and Martin (in Germany), and the lack of direct communication serves as an effective illustration of their geographical and later ideological distance. There is some inelegance, as dated prose read aloud has a tendency to sound oddly mannered, but the style becomes less problematic once Dunlop gets into the meat of the story.

We might bemoan the lost art of letter writing, but here it is revealed firstly as a tool of emotional devastation and secondly as downright dangerous. Between late 1932 and early 1934, the friendship between gentile Martin and Jewish Max is torn asunder by the former’s transformation into a dogmatic Nazi sympathiser, leading to one horrifying act of cowardice and another of revenge – which, in a neat development, turns letters into weapons and makes the audience uncomfortably complicit.

Steve Marmion’s crisp direction finds interesting nuances in what is essentially a Saki-esque short story with a great final twist, supported by Katie Lias’s evocative set, the clash of cultures represented by the juxtaposition between gleaming Art Deco prosperity and the embrace of wood-panelled tradition. Time and location shifts also have added resonance in Steve Seymour’s sound design, as jaunty jazz fades into symbolic opera and eventually the unmistakable tones of the Führer.

Simon Kunz gives Max an engaging geniality, but his dawning realisation that he is losing the most important relationship in his life to this insidious force, along with the fatal consequences of his former friend’s new allegiance, provides the play’s most powerful moments. Jonathan Cullen is equally compelling as wry family man Martin, who trades in his liberal leanings for the temptation of salvation encased in Hitler’s seductive rhetoric.

Martin’s shift is too abrupt, denying us the opportunity to see his conflict in adopting such a radical approach, but the infiltration of Nazi reasoning is undeniably chilling: his joy at swapping a culture of “austerity”, with its shameful associations, for the hope of a better future; his true belief that the persecution of Jews is just an unpleasant side effect, “the surface scum” on the wave of a brave new movement; and the horrifying declaration to his old friend that “I loved you not because of your race, but in spite of it”. It comes as no surprise that he has named his new baby Adolf.

The play’s ingenious structure turns the self-justifying rhetoric of the persecutor against him; in a surprising power shift, it is Max who is unable to tear himself from extremist action, while Martin’s pleas for clemency go unheeded. With further development, adding more details of their lives and relationship prior to Martin’s return to Germany so we understand the roots of their beliefs and the magnitude of what is lost, this would be an essential microcosmic encapsulation of one of the most indelible tragedies in human history.

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Reviewed 25/06/13/

By Marianka Swain
@mkmswain

24th June – 27th July 2013
Soho Theatre, London, W1.

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