Internationally-renowned Australian playwright Timothy Daly won the 2008 Patrick White Playwrights Award for Best New Play for The Man in the Attic. The first production of Daly’s piece was staged in Alaska in 2009. Later, productions of the work played France, Italy and Greece and now, for the first time, The Man in the Attic has been staged in Australia by Shalom and Moira Blumenthal Productions at Sydney’s Eternity Playhouse.
Set in April, 1945, The Man in the Attic is the story of Daniel Blickman (Barry French), a Jewish man who Anna Moller (Danielle King) finds in the woods outside of Elmshorn, a remote town in northern Germany. Anna takes Daniel back to the home she shares with her husband, Herman (Gus Murray). The couple agree to hide Daniel from Nazi authorities in their attic, but it’s not an entirely altruistic decision. Having already stolen his money, they tell Daniel, who is a jeweller and watch-maker by trade, that he will need to earn his keep, so he begins repair works on clocks, watches and other mechanical devices that Herman, in turn, sells or uses for bartering purposes.
The arrangement continues to deliver benefits to both parties until Hitler commits suicide and the Nazis surrender. Daniel can now emerge from the attic no longer fearful of persecution. The problem is that, hidden away in the Moller house, he is unaware of the movements in the world outside but for the information shared with him by the couple. Fuelled by their destitution, Anna and Herman make the self-serving decision to withhold news of the war’s end from Daniel. He will remain in the attic indefinitely, oblivious to the fact that the protection of the Mollers is no longer necessary.
The Man in the Attic is a fascinating story of the lengths people will go to in the name of self-preservation and how those who do so seek to justify their actions. Running 90 minutes and directed by Moira Blumenthal, it also speaks to the bigotry that persists more than 70 years after the Holocaust.
French is wonderful in his portrayal of Blickman, the kind-hearted and trusting jeweller immensely grateful to his protectors. King convinces as a woman who becomes very fond of Blickman and finds herself torn between loyalty to her husband and an unshakable urge to set things right. From the outset, Murray successfully depicts Herman as a man with a far stronger inclination to act in his own self-interest. Completing the cast is Colleen Cook who, as unscrupulous neighbour Frau Schorrer, continues to remind us of the anti-Semitism that has infected the world outside.
As well as engaging in dialogue, at various points in the show, Daly tasks his characters with narrating and it can have the effect of detracting, rather than enhancing, the story’s development. And sometimes, the true stakes of the situation could perhaps be conveyed with heightened drama.
Hugh O’Connor’s set, made up of a fragment of the Moller home and a small neighbouring property, is apposite in acknowledging a country and a people in wartime, ripped apart by conflict. It marries nicely with Emma Lockhart-Wilson’s dark lighting choices.
Blumenthal’s production brings to the stage a story still acutely relevant to a contemporary audience, prodding reflection on our own potential responses in desperate times and how easily charity can become opportunism.