Theatre Review of The Escape Act – A Holocaust Memoir

By Stav Meishar at The Lowry Studio – 29th October 2019

The Escape Act – A Holocaust Memoir is a remarkable piece of theatre on several levels. It is, first and foremost, a true and unusual story from what must surely be the most harrowing period of history in modern times. Secondly, it is a highly creative blend of several mediums including puppetry, trapeze, animation and multi-media all within the context of a one woman show. It also a very absorbing show, holding the audience from start to finish with writer/performer Stav Meishar presenting a highly personalised story.

Irene Danner was a Jewish acrobat who survived the Holocaust hiding from the Nazis at a German circus and The Escape Act alternates back and forth between both past and present and the characters and performer. Stav Meishar is herself the grandchild of Holocaust survivors and through extensive personal research discovered more information about Irene Danner’s family than she actually knows about much of her own ancestry. With this very personal link to the subject of the play, Meishar’s performance went far beyond the usual connections of actor to character, giving the show a very special resonance and also relevance for today.

The story of play examines Irene’s life between 1933 and 1945, from her teenage years through to falling in love and starting her own family, covering at the same time, the entire life of the Third Reich, from the year Hitler came to power until his suicide and the Allied victory. The threat of the Nazi’s is a constant backdrop to Irene’s story, with inevitably some tragedy along the way. The ‘family’ that was the Althoff Circus is examined in detail, shown to have been its own transient community surviving across Europe against the ravages of the war.

The presentation is remarkable both in its variety and versatility, ranging from a miniature Big-Top, just large enough for an actor to enter, a large back screen (which included archive footage of circus performers in Germany) and a trapeze from which Stav Meishar impressively continued to act which performing a wide range of acrobatic tricks. The puppets varied in size from 12” cut-outs to almost life size mannequins but this was of no consequence as Meishar’s continuous narration and many voices gave life to a wide range of characters. The only voices which are not actually Meishar’s are those of Nazi officers, were animated images on screen conversed directly with her. This was clearly a deliberate and clever move to distance both characters and performers from anyone involved with the Nazi regime and was very effective. It is also fitting that towards the end of the show, there is some footage on the back screen of Irene herself speaking about some aspects of time during the war

Stav Meishar has to date spent seven years researching into the lives of German-Jewish circus families during the Nazi period and this meticulous background study combined with attention to detail in acting many different characters as well as the central role of Irene has produced a very engaging and moving production. The personal story of Irene of course stands on its own merits but there is a wider educational aspect of The Escape Act which makes the play both important as a telling of history and highly relevant for today, with ethnic and racial tensions still very much with us and the Jewish community continuing to be an object of attack.

You will not see many shows like this where the artist is so personally linked to the characters and story, nor where the performance is so versatile; a fine piece of work.