Trigger warning: Holocaust
In Mengele, a show that ran at the Fringe in 2019 for its second year, Tim Marriott plays Mengele, an SS officer and physician in Auschwitz who experimented on the prisoners. Rather than a celebration of the figure, the play is an attempt to comfort those who have been affected by the holocaust and other genocides. Marriott gave The Student an interview to draw in younger audiences, as the play is very relevant in the current political climate – for example, just as Never Again Action states, current US concentration camps are reminiscent of the beginnings of the Holocaust, and need to be prevented.
How did you end up writing Mengele?
Philip Wharam, who studied Mengele for 30 years, wrote a novel about him. As a child, finding out about the Holocaust made me feel outraged. I think I got that from my mum too – she was born in what is now Pakistan, so I think she faced a fair amount of racism and bullying at school. Another thing was that she was theatre-mad, and she would take me to opening nights of all the big writers. What I remember most about those plays is going out afterwards and discussing and having conversations. And I always thought that if I got the opportunity to do my own style of theatre, I’d want to do one that starts a conversation. So when Philip came to me and said he wanted me to write a stage play with him, drawn from his novel, I thought it’d give me an opportunity to write about something that would start conversations, and also promote a cause.
What allowed you to act as and put yourself in the mindset of Mengele?
Philip sent the whole team on a five-day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, walking where Mengele walked. It really impacted us when we came back. We thought about what we’d witnessed and it was hard to come back and tell people about it. That was the first step. And then the research. Luckily Philip knew a lot of the background. But then I hadn’t acted in 17 years, so when I first started doing it, it was overwhelming. The enormity and the responsibility doing a piece about the Holocaust was massive. It did me a little bit of damage to my mental health – certainly it’s not unusual for me to finish a performance in tears. But I’ve managed to get a little bit more professionally disciplined nowadays, and found a way through that. And the piece is better as a result, because now the piece has a lighter touch to it, not being quite so preachy and didactic but it lets the audience make up their own mind about the piece. Subsequently the responses we’ve had so far have suggested that it’s worked.
Did you receive any strong opposition to the play?
I wouldn’t overstate it, there wasn’t a lot. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion. I’ve been told stupid things like the numbers are exaggerated and it didn’t happen the way I think it happened. I’ve had people tell me I’m ‘pro-Israeli,’ which I struggle to see but if that’s what they see from the piece, then perhaps I need to understand the Palestinian problem better and Lord knows that’s a complex and desperately sad issue but we don’t go there with this piece, that’s not what we’re about.
Our posters last year got sliced up with knives and smeared with dirt. When we went to the Avignon Festival last month to do the show in French and English, our posters got ripped down and the number 18 (meaning Adolf Hitler) [was] scrawled across them, and star of David, and Juden [were] written on them. Anti-semitism is everywhere right now and there are those who’d rather we didn’t do this kind of thing. But that’s very rare.
I had somebody walk up to me in the street and say “nobody gives a shit about the Holocaust, the only ones who do are the Jews, and nobody gives a shit about the Jews.” My answer to that is people do care, because they’re coming – we regularly sell out. The support that the Holocaust Education Trust are getting through the work, in terms of promoting a wish to understand more, to be more educated about the Holocaust, shows that there are good people out there. I’d like to think there are more good people out there than bad, and the whole point of the piece is that we all have the capability to be like that. We don’t paint Mengele as a monster because then he’s too easy to dismiss. We paint him as a human being, and as such, hope that we recognise the potential to be monstrous in all of us.
Why do you think the play is relevant?
The play isn’t just historical. The play imagines Mengele in the beach of Brazil, where he drowned in 1979. Washed up and greeted by the woman he thinks has saved him, he talks to her about his principles, his ideals. In doing so, we echo some of the things we hear today. So we’re drawing parallels between past and present, trying to learn the lesson of history.
We need to take these issues on and make our voices heard. I’m very old now, and one of the reasons I’m so passionate about it is that I know I don’t have much time left and I want to make my voice heard as long as I can. I’m trying to encourage and facilitate young people to take on tough issues and to stand up. That’s why I work with a very young assistant director, assistant producer, technician, and actress.
What do you think the role of Azra was in the play?
Both Philip and I are married to counsellors, so in writing the script, we both looked at how a therapist works, how they open somebody up and gets them to talk about themselves. That’s pretty much what Azra does. Stephanie Rossi plays the part terrifically. It’s a fine line as she can’t ever give away to Mengele that she’s controlling him, but the audience need to see that he’s being manipulated and I think she walks that line perfectly.
She does get agency at the end, as she gets to deliver the final climactic, violent end of the play, which audiences, especially Jewish audiences, tend to find cathartic. Anyone who knows about the horrors of genocide and prejudice, racial profiling, will recognise her final speech. The speech is all drawn from the final testimony of survivors. She’s given the voice of survivors, and married to that we use the images that were taken when Auschwitz was liberated in 1945 – images of survivors looking down, down at Mengele at the end of the play.
Speaking of the videos, who decided on the images and the Yiddish music played in them?
I initially worked with an amazing young writer, director and performer, Emma Zadow. She originally created the role of Azra as well. I asked her to research and make the music choices and she found these Polish-Yiddish tangoes, and I never tire of listening to them. It’s just heartbreaking, beautiful and uplifting all at the same time.
The suggestion is that the images are happening in his head. So the first image is of the beach he drowned in. Then we come out of that into a steam train, and we move into arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau, to the selection, going down into the gas chambers and all that imagery is drawn from genuine footage and some from a very old documentary, and some created from other sources. It reminds the audience of where we are without being graphic, following the advice from Holocaust Education Trust, as that’ll avert the audience from what we’re doing. The second projection is that of mostly genuine footage of Jews being rounded up and herded towards the ghettos. Not everyone gets the third one but it’s the architect’s plan of Birkenau. The reason for this is that there are people out there who tell you that the Holocaust must’ve happened by an ‘accident’, but it was planned. It was itemised on those drawings what the buildings were for, for example the gas chambers. Undeniable proof. Final video is the cathartic moment.
Have you had any inputs from survivors?
I’ve met survivors and their families and that’s both terrifying and humbling. They’ve responded emotionally and positively to the play, which encourages me to feel that we’re doing something that’s worth doing.
How long will the play go on for?
I’ll keep doing it as long as there are audiences for it. I don’t do it just for the Fringe, but for a good cause. We also do a number of smaller school performances, where we give a brief presentation of the Holocaust then perform the play. We then engage them in conversation. The work to promote awareness of the Holocaust is very important.
The headmaster I had in my last year of teaching, Tom Lawson – I vividly remember his first address as headmaster, where he had a simple message for all the children: “you can choose to be kind or not. It’s a choice. And I’d like you to choose to be kind.” In performing this play we remember the advice of survivor Eva Mozes Kor, that every day we should simply “think of doing something good.”
Image: Richard Daniels