Pros: A beautifully acted and scripted play, powerful, emotional and an important contribution to Holocaust awareness.
Cons: This is a review of a Digital Theatre film screening, and the play loses much from being a film. Inevitably there is a loss of communication between actors and audience.
On World Theatre Day, March 27th, I set off for the London premiere screening of Jeff Cohen’s The Soap Myth at the Jewish Museum in Camden. The clue of course is in the word ‘screening;’ this was a film of a play. For those unable to attend the screening, it was available to stream or download from Digital Theatre. So at the same time I sat down to watch the screening of this play, viewers all over the world could press play, watch it at the same time and join in the post-show discussion using the twitter handle @DigitalTheatre and #TheSoapMythOnScreen.
In some ways this was a fitting tribute to World Theatre Day, and the evening also included the National Jewish Theatre Foundation Awards, recognising those who had made valuable contributions to Jewish voices in theatre. Receiving awards were Henry Goodman, an Olivier Award winning actor, who received critical acclaim for his role in the Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (by Bertold Brecht); Sir Ronald Harwood, Academy Award winning author of The Pianist; Sir Anthony Sher, multiple award winning actor (who wasn’t present); Martin Sherman, playwright and author of landmark Holocaust plays Bent and Rose; and Duncan Weldon, respected West End producer for over 40 years, who produced the likes of Bent, Taking Sides and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Also present for the post show discussion were the writer Jeff Cohen and director Arnold Mittelman.
The evening included access to the Jewish Museum and I visited the Holocaust Gallery, which tells the story of Auschwitz survivor Leon Greenman, whose wife and young son were murdered at Aushwitz. This was an incredibly moving exhibition, which included photographs and clothes that belonged to Leon and his family and also the cutlery he used while in the camp.
The centrepiece of the evening was the play The Soap Myth. The play depicts the tenacious efforts of a Holocaust survivor to establish the fact that the Nazis produced soap made from the fat of Jewish corpses and gave it to the inmates of concentration camps to wash with. This character, Milton Saltzman, is based on an actual survivor. Central to the play is a young journalist Annie (Andi Potamkin), and through her eyes we see different versions of the same story. Holocaust academics focus on the lack of documented evidence for Milton’s eyewitness testimony rather than the contents of his account. In this way his experiences are given secondary consideration to evidence the Nazis themselves left behind. Documented evidence is treated as indisputable while Saltzman’s own story is viewed as unreliable. The anguish this causes Saltzman is portrayed superbly by Greg Mullavey. At one point he describes the distress he has felt almost everyday of his life when washing with soap and the terrible memories that this mundane activity provokes in him. Milton is finally able to tell his story because of the endeavours of the journalist and there is some healing.
The play is beautifully written and acted. Had I seen it in a theatre rather than on a screen, I am sure that the experience would have been much more compelling and powerful. Much of the play’s power is lost, though, as film is a poor substitute for experience of live theatre. This point was brought up in the post-show discussion and the argument put forward was that enabling access to theatre in this way would encourage more people to go and watch live theatre as well as ensuring a permanent reminder of what history has taught us. It is however a second-hand experience, not a live experience, that theatre is all about.
Author: Jeff Cohen
Director: Arnold Mittelman
Co-director of filmed version: Ron Kopp
Scenic Designer: Heather Wolensky
Costume Designer: David Withrow
Lighting Designer: Jay Scott
Composer: Leon Levitch
Booking until: 27th March 2014
Booking Link: http://www.jewishmuseum.org.uk/whats-on?item=560