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How theatre heals the wounds of war

2018 was filled with echoes of war – from moving centenary reflections on the sacrifices made in the First World War, to ugly revivals of the anti-Semitism which partly fuelled the Second.

Words: John Worsey

Dame Stephanie Shirley

At the University of Portsmouth, Dr Erika Hughes uses theatre and performance to help communities heal the wounds of war. The Veterans Project, which played at the White Swan (behind the New Theatre Royal) in November, brings soldiers from the frontline to the footlights, to tell their own stories.

 It began because Erika’s brother, himself a war veteran, was having a hard time talking about his experiences. Determined to help, Erika turned to her drama skills in the hope she could close this communication gap. This inspired her to create an entire performance series where veterans talk on stage, unscripted, about their time in the military. 

Erika says, “The magic of live performance is in being able to look at and experience other human beings as they truly are, in that moment. This pushes audience members to wonder, ‘Do I see myself in this situation? Or do I see someone I know in that situation?’ It puts their relationship with society under the spotlight.”

Erika’s motivation to explore Holocaust theatre is, too, partially motivated by her family’s experiences. Her grandfather was a flight surgeon in the US Army Air Forces, and was among the first to help liberate Mauthausen concentration camp. When Erika’s family installed the internet, her grandfather’s first request was to look up the camp. He gave his family a virtual guided tour and shared his experiences there.

Intrigued by how drama reflects on the Holocaust, Erika began travelling to places where she could witness Holocaust theatre in person. She’s lived in Germany and Israel, and is now researching British performances.

 She explains, “Each culture uses the Holocaust as a way to tell stories about itself to itself, as much as anything else. For example, theatre makers in Germany are aware of both the terribly legacy of perpetrating this tragedy, and the country’s increasingly multicultural population. And so theirs is a very specific kind of theatre that tells Holocaust stories in ways that are less to do with hopeful narratives, and more about the tragic realities that took place.”

Following the recent horrific shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, it’s clear that we must not make the mistake of thinking the Holocaust has no lessons left to teach us – nor of demonising those in the military who protect the freedoms we hold dear.

Equally, we shouldn’t forget how the human spirit endures. On 30 January, the University hosts Dame Stephanie Shirley, who arrived in Britain as an unaccompanied child refugee, fleeing the Nazis. Her talk, ‘My Family in Exile’, reveals how she built an extraordinary life in her adopted country. It is sure to be a thought-provoking and hopeful beginning to a new year which promises further turbulence for our fragile world.

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