A chance visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam where those world famous diaries were originally penned during the Second World War, has inspired Co-Directors Lesley Coombes and Guil Noronha to put The Diary of Anne Frank on the stage of Maitland Repertory theatre – first produced on Broadway in 1955 and not often seen on Australian stages. Walking in the footsteps of the real life characters in Amsterdam, and being in Anne’s actual bedroom has provided the directors a depth of understanding that is proving so successful on the stage.
The 13-year-old diarist who perished in the waning days of the Nazi death camps left behind a record of optimism, anticipation and, above all, existence.
However common perceptions of the play is of a dark, difficult subject, but as Coombes says, “the play is a testament to the human spirit”. When the play premiered on Broadway in 1955, the real Otto Frank wrote a letter to the director and actors, which was pinned to a bulletin board backstage. In the letter, Otto wished the play success and his hope that “the message which it contains will, through you, reach as many people as possible and awaken in them a sense of responsibility to humanity.”
“This has underpinned our interpretation of the play and has been at the heart of our production” says Coombes.
Just as in Anne’s diary the war going on around them is always present, as is the unbearable tension and constant fear of being discovered, but it is Anne’s relationships with the seven other people in hiding, and the relationship she has with herself over those two years, that is at the heart of Coombes’ production. It is only when Otto returns in the final scene, we are reminded of the horrors of the war going on around the secret annexe.
Being able to deliver tremendous on-stage emotional growth is the key to the lead role (played by Abbey Matt) who begins as an innocent 13 year old, and by the end, must portray the experiences of a 15 year old matured beyond her years and facing death from the Nazis.
Despite the horrors of the war going on, it is human interactions that provide the interest on stage. Frank’s diaries record in detail the daily life occurring in the annexe and narrate the development of her relationships, most notably with her exasperated mother which at the beginning reflects a typically difficult mother-daughter relationship, that then develops into a more mature almost adult relationship just two years later.
It is these and other interactions Anne has with many of the annexe inhabitants that brings their characters to life: Anne, as the budding romantic, unsure of the new feelings inspired in her by Peter van Daan (Chris Henderson). Anne as the feisty younger sister who is treated with unflinching tolerance by her serene older sister Margot (Giverny Burke). And Anne as the overly curious roommate to Mr. Dussel the dentist (Oliver Pink).
The portrayal of these relationships provide depth and poignancy to the play, and while it certainly could not be described as a comedy, Anne’s diaries reveal comic moments that occur as a result of the day to day relationships that all of us can recognise in our own daily lives.
And it is not just the lead that is presented with challenges in this production. For the rest of the cast, once they enter the stage at the start of the play, they are “trapped” on stage for the full two hours of the performance (interval aside) with nowhere to escape – exactly the effect Coombes was looking for given the context of the story.
To provide even more depth to the action on stage, Coombes has used details from the primary source itself, which all cast also read. “The diaries go into great detail describing the character traits of the people Anne shared her life with, including those traits that entertain – and occasionally annoy – a maturing girl” says Coombes. Much of which today’s 13 to 15 year olds could recognise, except today most are not trapped in a room with 7 others trying to escape the horrors of World War and persecution.
A long rehearsal period allowing several months of character development, the extra details provided by the diary itself and clever staging and direction from Coombes and Noronha has produced a show that delivers well beyond the words on the page, and despite the final outcome, it might help you to agree with Anne Frank herself who says at the end, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”
Show opens September 20.