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A Conversation on Kindertransport

Some notes I made for a Q&A in relation to Kindertransport, which I’m directing for the University of Birmingham’s Department of Drama and Theatre Arts. You can read the full conversation on the Saving Humans blog at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Birmingham.

How aware you were of the Kindertransport and its scale before working on the play?

I first became aware of the Kindertransport when I saw the play for the first time several years ago. Prior to having seen the play, I’d had no idea about the existence of the Kindertransport, never mind its scale, so for me this was a great example of how drama can be used to make the audience aware of a historical event or issue. One of the things that makes Diane’s work so powerful is that it brings the experience of the kinder and their families clearly into the minds of the audience. While most of us are lucky enough never to have experienced the separation that Eva goes through in the play, we are able to empathise both with Eva/Evelyn’s desire to forget her past and her daughter Faith’s need to know her history.

What do you think the significance of the play is today? 

Although this year marks the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport, the forced movement of populations is far from a thing of the past. In a sense the play is about every child forced to abandon their home by conflict, natural disaster and economic necessity. The discrimination that Eva is faced with is a real experience for many newly arrived children and adults in this country. As Helga, Eva’s mother, points out, the story is experienced ‘not only by our ancestors but as if it happened to us. Not legend but truth’. While we must not forget the evils that led to the Kindertransport, it is equally important to remember that comparable experiences are taking place as we speak.

Is it important for historical events to be used as subject matter for plays and what are the problems and possibilities? 

History has been a fertile breeding ground for drama since before Shakespeare. It offers us a way of exploring our past in a compelling and playful way. It’s important to remember though that drama is a different thing to history, and that the primary responsibility of the dramatist is to tell a compelling and emotionally truthful story rather than adhere strictly to the facts. Kindertransport is based on meticulous research, yet Eva/Evelyn and her family are all fictional characters. While many of the events described in the play happened to various of the kinder, Diane Samuels has aggregated those experiences to create a fictitious set of people. This allows Eva/Evelyn’s experience to become a metaphor for the whole experience of the Kindertransport. Seeing the play may encourage audience members to do more detailed research into the history; it seems to me though that our primary responsibility in telling this story is to create something that communicates how the Kindertransport was experienced emotionally.

How do you think the experience would have been for children and young people? 

Terrifying and traumatic – and wildly different depending on who and where you were placed! To be removed from your family at such a young age might call into question who you are and how you see yourself. The play turns on an axis of remembering versus forgetting – Evelyn wants to forget her past while Faith hopes to uncover it. Gradually Eva becomes Evelyn, turning her back on the mother and faith of her birth and imposing a new identity on herself. Only by accepting her past can she escape the guilt she feels for surviving.