All Our Children, currently playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London sets out to remember the 200,000 people murdered and those who fought against the injustice of the Nazi Holocaust. Kate Lovell concludes the production to be disturbingly relevant to current times
When attending a play which delves into the atrocities of Nazi Germany, an audience is prepared for a hard-hitting evening. All Our Children is deeply unsettling, but in a way that defies initial expectations. Set in January 1941, there’s an expectation to experience the distance that over seventy years should create, between what happened then and where we are now. But there is a disturbing relevancy to the play’s themes. A politically switched on audience will pick up on the contemporary issues that the play exposes.
The play’s protagonist is German doctor, Victor, who presides over a so-called clinic for disabled children as their chief medical practitioner. Parents are, in fact, being duped into handing their disabled children over to a holding place before they are then dispatched to concentration camps and murdered. Victor is assisted by a zealous fanatic by the name of Eric, the head of administration, who punctuates every entrance and exit by pledging allegiance to Hitler.
This is deeply challenging subject matter for any playwright. The horror is so enormous, there is a delicate balance to be found, to allow the topic to be done justice, but to prevent an audience from switching off to protect themselves from its emotional sharpness. Unwin’s choice is to write a verbose and intellectual take on this dark issue, with all the action taking place within Victor’s office in a series of conversations.
Each character that enters the play carries a concrete opinion on matters relating to disability and the operations of the Third Reich. Their standpoint becomes their personality, which dampens the credibility of the characters. The fanatic is unswervingly maniacal, the bishop is rigidly pious in his damnation of the clinic’s true machinations.
The characters lack the messy complexity that defines us as humans. There is little sense of a journey taken, with the doctor’s own change of opinion on his own deathly practice coming out of the blue and very late in the day. It is difficult to empathise, but perhaps Unwin’s intention is for the audience to engage with the events on a purely intellectual level.
What All Our Children does do, is highlight the dangers of political rhetoric which dehumanises and ‘others’ people who do not fit the prescribed vision of what it means to be ‘normal’. The references to ‘useless feeders’ are frighteningly near to tabloid references to ‘benefit scroungers’.
Those who condone the practices within the clinic refer to the financial burden that disabled children place upon the state, highlight that they will never be able to contribute to society. The language is chilling to hear because it is so familiar, it has undeniable links to a rhetoric regularly disseminated by the press, of those who ‘take out’ but do not ‘put back’.
All Our Children does not explicitly make these links to what is happening in contemporary Britain, but the moral debate that rages through the play, about whether one life is worth more than another, is one that is still peddled out by our media, and it is to Unwin’s credit that these frightening parallels are being highlighted.
All Our Children is playing at Jermyn Street Theatre,16b Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6ST until Saturday 3 June. Click on this link for full details of the production. Please note Jermyn Street Theatre is not publicly-funded and does not have full wheelchair access. If you are concerned about access, please contact the General Manager on 020 7434 1443