Play Envisioning Anne Frank as Holocaust Survivor Falls Flat in Tel Aviv

The Dutch play 'Anne' meant to create a different view of the famous story of Anne Frank, without the censorship her father imposed. It’s unfortunate that the Cameri Theater production reprises overly familiar ideas and traps the story in a rotating set

From left: Asaf Peri, Motti Katz, Dana Meinrath and Sara Von Schwarze in 'Anne.'
Kfir Bolotin

At the end I cried, of course. How could one not? Ohad Shahar, as Otto Frank, stands at the front of the stage; behind him, all the moving screens on which the grim landscape of a concentration camp in the snow, seen through tree branches, have shut down. He holds a page from the diary of his daughter Anne, one of many that remained scattered on the floor of the “secret annex” when its occupants were betrayed to the Nazis. In a factual, restrained tone he delivers the details that everyone knows (or should know, in an ideal world). Anne Frank, we are told, who was 15, and her older sister, Margot, who both survived for more than two years with the other occupants in a hiding place in Amsterdam, died of typhoid fever in Bergen-Belsen, shortly before the camp was liberated.

The Diary of Anne Frank” is a formative text in a great many senses. Its power stems from the personality and story of the author-heroine, who documented in real time the human, intimate side amid the apocalyptic chaos of a world gone mad. She possessed a rare ability to give expression to a vitalized, spontaneous voice and a sober, mature viewpoint, together with endearing innocence and an utter absence of illusions. It was a type of healthy sanity within the murderous insanity, reflecting an incomprehensible gulf between the pure, humane naivete of youth, and the horrific things that befell her (and her family, and millions of other Jews, and other victims of the Holocaust). But Anne Frank’s story is far more complex; paradoxically, indeed, the story of the diary itself, with its different versions and adaptations, has served many Holocaust deniers.

It’s important to mention all this in the context of considering the new theatrical version of Anne’s story in a Cameri Theater production directed by Alon Ofir. The facts about the diary are set forth in the lavish program. For almost two years, Anne Frank reported on the events in the hiding place where her family lived along with the van Pels family and a dentist, Fritz Pfeffer, in the form of letters to an imaginary friend named Kitty. At a certain point, after hearing a broadcast in which a Dutch cabinet minister spoke about the importance of documenting life under the occupation in diaries, Anne started to edit her diary entries for publication in book form.

When her father, Otto, returned from the camps (he was the family’s only survivor), he took possession of the loose pages and published the diary in a version that integrates the two sources. He also censored passages about Anne’s awakening sexuality, her harsh relations with her mother and descriptions that, in his opinion, were liable to be offensive to the other occupants of the secret annex. The Jewish-American writer Meyer Levin adapted the diary as a play. However, he became embroiled in disputes with Otto Frank and, following legal battles, his dramatized version was rejected by theaters. The stage version that ultimately became a worldwide success is by the American playwrights Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Staged in Israel at least five times since 1957, it is faithful to the way Otto wants to remember Anne, based on the two versions of the diary.

In 2009, the Anne Frank Foundation, established by Otto Frank, commissioned a play based on the original texts of Anne herself, drawing on two versions of the diary she wrote and edited. The result is “Anne,” by the Dutch playwrights Leon de Winter and Jessica Durlacher (Hebrew translation: Rivka Meshulach). Their underlying idea was the “Diary of Anne Frank” as Anne would have liked to see it at the editing stage; nor does it censor moments that Anne’s father deleted from the earlier play.

Accordingly, “Anne” begins with an imaginary meeting in postwar Paris between Anne, who has ostensibly survived the camps, and a boy she admired before entering the secret annex. His name is Peter (the same as that of the teenager from the van Pels family with whom she socializes, unavoidably, in the cramped hiding space) and he is now a publisher. They talk about her diary. The spectator knows that this is how Anne, in the later stages of her time in the annex, would have liked to see herself in the future; and is supposed to be aware that this part of the play is fictional and therefore particularly painful.

The leap in time poses a tricky acting challenge for 31-year-old Dana Meinrath, who plays Anne at two different stages in her life. One is imagined – an older Anne, had she survived, who has a voice in the shaping of the way she is remembered; and the other is the “real” 13-year-old Anne (her age when she went into hiding) who discovers her femininity and herself before the eyes of the spectators.

Two points of view

Wearing a black wig, Meinrath is able to extract from the character of the “later” Anne numerous touching moments. But this is apparently at the expense of her attempt to be a 13-year-old child-adolescent, where her diction is very distorted and her performance slides into adolescent behavioral mannerisms.

Indeed, this is one of the problems of the play as a whole. The director explains in the program that his intention was to concentrate on depicting the oppressive, cramped life of those in hiding, who buckle under the burden of the everyday routine in surroundings that are anything but routine. The set, designed by Lily Ben Nachshon, consists of a cube that revolves on its axis, a cross-section of the two-story annex that allows it to be viewed from all sides. The movement of the eight souls in the cube/hiding place does create an impression of claustrophobic crowding, but the fact that the cube revolves unceasingly distracts one’s attention from the play and from the two points of view that are presented.

This is a design idea that provides a practical, aesthetically pleasing solution for the set, but it seems to have been accepted without sufficient thought about its thematic-atmospheric suitability (or lack thereof). The revolving stage is pushed by extras in Gestapo uniforms who enter the play’s action toward the end, but it seems rather ridiculous that their principal role in the production is as stagehands.

The characters spend most of their time maneuvering within the cube, busy with everyday concerns, such as going to the toilet and of course engaging in the inevitable quarrels that arise in a shared apartment. The result, at least in the first part of the play, is to create a certain sense of overfamiliarity (for me, at least, though I am aware that in the meantime a generation has emerged here and abroad that does not know Anne). I admit that at one point I even remarked to myself that I didn’t recall Anne Frank’s diary being so boring. When a moment of emotion between the characters in hiding is forged, there is an almost immediate cut to the future time in Paris when the later Anne “mediates” it to her interlocutor, thus transforming the event in the annex into a kind of illustrated example.

The large cast does its best, based on each part as written. Sara Von Schwarze is exaggeratedly theatrical as Mrs. van Pels, while Motti Katz does what’s required from a long-suffering husband. Yigal Zacks is the dentist who dampens Anne’s joie de vivre, Adi Arad plays the remnants of the character of Anne’s mother, Tal Blankstein is Margot, Asaf Peri is the hiding-place Peter and Ori Zaltzman the Paris-based one, while Aya Granit-Shva and Avi Theremin play Miep and Jan Gies.

I am certain that for the cast, the director and the other creative individuals involved it was a genuine experience to engage this material. And the truth is that I can’t imagine what kind of reception the play gets from audiences, especially young people, for whom “The Diary of Anne Frank” is not an integral element in their world. I think I understand what this new version set out to do, but I’m afraid that the Cameri Theater production misses the opportunity to afford a new view of this true and terrible story, while at the same time it superficializes the little that remains of the old, familiar view.