"HIMMELWEG is a story that needs to be told. It deals with epic ideas and challenges the audience to sit up and listen. " – Alister Smith.
Written by Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga, Himmelweg is dated June 23 1944, when the Nazis permitted an inspection of the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp by the Red Cross. This was done in order to dispel terrifying rumours of genocide, but, of course, what the Red Cross representative witnessed was not the truth but rather a macabre and twisted tale of Nazi propaganda.
Mayorga is well known for his ability to challenge truths – perceived as well as manufactured – for instance, in Himmelweg, raising the question: Was the Red Cross Representative really duped or was he happy to believe in the superficial pretence of reality in front of him? The power of Mayorga's work is not lost on Himmelweg director Alister Smith who states: " On reading the play for the first time I was struck not only by the subject matter, but also by the incredible way in which Juan Mayorga has crafted the text. It is explosive and dangerous. For eg: Juan puts a Nazi Commandant and a Jewish concentration camp prisoner together in a room, and forces them to interact – this is dynamic theatre at its best. "
Mayorga's style is also to stretch the boundaries of traditional theatre making and offer, instead, his own brand of experimental ideas and ideals as well as question the way one perceives the truths and how these truths can be distorted. Himmelweg translates to 'Way to heaven’ and was the euphemism for the ramp that led Jews from trains into gas chambers. This is a linguistic disguise, just as performance becomes a disguise in Himmelweg to conceal the horrors of concentration camp life from a Red Cross Representative. Says Smith: "The structure of the play has some very exciting challenges for both actors and myself, as the director. Mayorga has constructed a play that invites the use of imagination and encourages contemporary theatre making in its interpretation and imagining. His play not only investigates the Holocaust but also the constructive nature of theatre, its artifice and relevance. So being able to push the boundaries and investigate new ways of telling the story, as embracing traditional techniques, has been the most exciting challenge in process of staging HIMMELWEG. "
The work is, of course, based on actual events that occurred during World War II. Known as 'Operation Embellishment' wherein a fake community was established in an attempt to misdirect the negative world view of Hitler as he addressed 'The Jewish question.' The camps prisoners were forced to rehearse scenes, which LITERALLY became the performances of their lives. The Holocaust, this period in our fairly modern history, should serve as a reminder that hate fuels hate – yet what have we learned? is a question Smith poses: " The Holocaust is one of the most horrific events to have occurred in our modern history, yet we still see hate crimes happening in our world today. Have we not learnt? This fuels my fire and determination to shift this paradigm. HIMMELWEG is about the devastating power and destruction that hate can have and cause. It is also about the tremendous power that hope has in the face of such atrocities. All of this connects to my vision as an artist, and as a human. "
As a director Smith is drawn to the humanity of the work as well as the social commentary. " As a theatre director I am drawn to work that is concerned with social and moral change," explains Smith. "As artists, it really is our civic responsibility to dedicate our lives to exploring these ideas. I’m interested in creating theatre that gives an audience a unique experience. Meaning; I’m not interested in plays that are television on stage – I want human interaction that is live, immediate and immersive in a theatrical framework – which is what HIMMELWEG is. It is able to connect to the audience in a theatrical, and human, way. " Smith goes on to say hat the subject matter really has been the greatest challenge. It is impossible to comprehend the devastation that took place, so to submerge yourself in this world is incredibly challenging and to strive to present it with truth, respect and honour is a must."
Smith began Redroom Theatre Company in 2005 as a method of continuing his artistic investigation. He wanted to practice his methodology following his studies, and he did this by creating his own opportunities. Through the company he has explored many theatrical mediums, from plays to musicals and cabaret performance theatre, to children’s theatre. Smith spent last year extending his skills as a director at the VCA – which, he says, was a wonderful opportunity for growth and discovery. "It acted as a reminder for me of the power and responsibility we have as artists and re-connected me with my mission as a director."
Smith's mission is clear for Himmelweg as is his passion: "This is one of the most dynamic plays I have ever had the fortune to work on. This play is about redemption, regret, guilt and the hope for a better tomorrow. It reminds us of the fragility of the human species, as well as the incredible power we wield. HIMMELWEG is challenging for both actor, director and audience – it demands an audience to engage. It dares them to seek out truth in the world around them, by showing propaganda at its most deadly. "
Himmelweg plays at Theatreworks June 21 – July 1