Next March, I’ll be part of the One Off cast performing this play at the King’s Theatre in Southsea. As it stands at the moment, I’ll be playing the dentist, Alfred Dussell, although this may change by the time we begin rehearsals.
It’s rare for me to be performing in a play I don’t know, and even rarer (for me!) to get around to reading the script this far in advance. Is it a good play? To be honest, it doesn’t really matter. All drama – all storytelling – is a fusion of the quality of the writing and the power of the story: sometimes a great story meets a great storyteller, and the result is perfection, or nearly so; sometimes an average story – even a poor one – can be lifted into the sublime by a master writer; and sometimes the story transcends the person putting the words on the page. The Diary of Anne Frank undoubtedly falls into the latter category – a story that is, in outline at least, familiar to everyone, and of immense, intrinsic power and poignancy. All that is really required of the dramatist is to transfer it serviceably to the stage, shaping it to be performable; even that is facilitated by the contained space and structure, which, in another context, could easily be a mundane domestic drama.
Actors are always being asked how they remember the lines; some find it easy to do, others don’t. But the harder task is, having learned the lines, to then learn how to say them as if they haven’t been learned, as if they are being spoken fresh and new from the heart each time they are performed.
That task is multiplied here, and it is that which – at this stage – daunts me more than just about any play I’ve been in. Not only have we to perform as if we are living and speaking in the moment, but to be in a moment when we are unaware of the trajectories of the characters we are playing, and unaware of the awful and tragic history within which the story takes place, and of which it is the exemplar. Somehow we have to unlearn the entire context and meaning of the play, in order to allow that meaning its room to live and reach the audience.
Two things give me confidence: the first is that the cast will be brilliant, as it always is with One Off productions, and everyone will contribute fully; and the second, touched on in passing earlier, is that this play is, in truth, a domestic drama. Playing on the small scale, physically and emotionally, the cast can rely on the audience to construct the wider significance around it, and us.