UNDER The Skin is a tender – and true – story of love, set against the horrors of the Second World War. It is moving, shocking and beautifully acted. I implore you to catch it if you can. Short, sharp and brave theatre.
Written by Israeli playwright Yonatan Calderon, it flits between a women’s labour camp (Neuengamme) near the end of the war and Tel Aviv 1991 when the Gulf War was raging – and the city’s residents are regularly being alerted to possible rocket attacks.
The common denominator is Charlotte Brod who in her youth was Lotte Rosner, a gifted ballet dancer who loved to be Giselle. But in 1991 she is a somewhat crotchety individual out of love and carrying the shadows of the past on her shoulders. Haunted by ghosts.
She is visited by Kirsten Eberhardt, claiming to be a young journalist. She is seeking confirmation that Brod is Charlotte Rosner, an acclaimed ballerina in her youth. Brod is in denial while Eberhardt seems more concerned about self-preservation, grasping for a gas mask whenever the whirr of a bomb can be heard overhead.
Slowly, the jigsaw pieces are put together as we are transmitted back to 1944 where Lotte and her best friend Ida Berman are struggling to survive in the camp. Summary executions are the norm, a murdering doctor (Doctor Schmidt) goes about her job with glee, and starvation is never far away.
Yet there is salvation in the form of Nazi commander Ilsa Kholmann – known around camp as ‘Bube’ (boy). She is smitten by Lotte and saves her life twice – preventing her from joining a gang of five volunteers to feed the pigs (code for being summarily shot) and enabling her to survive the murderous clutches of the female camp doctor when she falls ill.
Bube then hatches an escape plan for Lotte which involves her performing before a group of SS officers, but it fails. With the allied forces getting ever closer, Lotte and Ida are transported to Bergen-Belsen, but Bube is undeterred. She tracks Lotte down and breaks into the camp dressed as a Jew.
Is it really love or is she just attempting to save her own skin? It ends in an awful double tragedy which explains Brod’s state of mind more than forty years on (Ida is always a ‘presence in Brod’s room). Eberhardt’s appearance in Tel Aviv squares the circle.
Based largely on the trial protocol of Kholmann, this play is heart-breaking on so many levels. It is also cleverly acted with the three actresses doubling or trebling up, changing costume on stage. Dance and movement is a recurring theme – the play’s cement.
Adi Loya’s transformation from 66 year old Brod to the ever marching ‘Bube’ is quite magnificent while Natasha Lanceley plays Lotte with great sensitivity. She even passes herself off as a half decent ballerina. When not Lotte, Lanceley plays journalist Eberhardt.
Completing the trio is Batel Israel who is wonderful as the caring Ida. She is also effective in her cameos as smiling assassin Schmidt and the host at the cabaret which Lotte performs at.
Under The Skin is raw theatre. Maybe, it suffers a little from being too fractured with nine scenes being crammed into just an hour. But this is a story which just had to be told. Hats off to both writer Calderon and director Ariella Eshed.
Images by Lidia Crisafulli