It’s a grim, blustery winter morning. The wind is causing small waves to break along the Lagan, trees are bent over at perilous angles and along the embankment pedestrians struggle along with useless umbrellas. Meanwhile, in the warmth and shelter of the Lyric Theatre rehearsal room, with its wide-angled view along the river, a group of actors shut out the real world to focus in on preparing a play which carries its own stormy moments and dark sense of foreboding.
As they go about their business under the intense scrutiny of director Paul Bosco McEneaney, the cast and production team of Charles Way’s Nivelli’s War are subconsciously demonstrating exactly what Creavity Month is all about, in terms of engagement in the creative industries and artistic achievement at the highest level. Beside McEneaney sit composer Garth McConaghie, who is responsible for the spine-tingling score, choreographer Muirne Bloomer, whose close attention to deportment and body language feeds into the sharply edged characterisations, and voice coach Peter Ballance, who gives actor Maggie Cronin an intriguing note about her interpretation of the role of Tante Sofie – 'It’s not about the accent,' he says. 'You need to feel German. Then the accent will come naturally.'
The work of Cahoots NI is world class. Over the years, under the inspirational direction of co-founder McEneaney, it has produced a string of outstanding productions for young audiences, blending strong storytelling, dazzling illusions and special effects guaranteed to engage and retain the imaginations of even the smallest children – not to mention their grown-up companions. Those of us who have watched the company’s evolution from its earliest beginnings have long been repeating the mantra that work of this quality demands to be seen not only at home but far from these shores too. The company recently toured the United States with its delightful rites-of-passage show Egg and now it is poised to break onto Broadway.
Its 2014 world premiere of Nivelli’s War was one of the year’s theatrical highlights and marked the beginning of what has turned into a mutually rewarding creative partnership. Way, who lives in the Welsh borderlands, is one of the leading contemporary writers of plays for young audiences. When he and McEneaney first bumped into each other in Washington DC in 2010, a fast friendship and artistic understanding was forged.
At the time, Way was engaged in writing a play called Pirates while McEneaney was directing a new stage adaptation of Melinda Long’s picture book How I Became a Pirate on the Imagination Stage, the city’s leading venue for family theatre.. They went out to dinner and talked about plays and producing… and pirates. Two years after that fortuitous meeting, the company was on tour with a highly acclaimed new production of Way’s family drama A Spell of Cold Weather.
Then came Nivelli’s War, commissioned by Cahoots and developed by the collective vision of Way, McEneaney and McConaghie. It was spotted at that year’s Belfast Children’s Festival by Mary Rose Lloyd, long-time Director of Artistic Programming at New York’s New Victory Theater, which describes itself as '… New York City’s premier non-profit performing arts theater devoted year-round to kids and their families and classmates'. She promptly issued an invitation for it to come to that world-famous stage, where it will play from April 27 until May 11.
Before then, Northern Ireland audiences will have the privilege of viewing this exciting new revival, which, with a significantly enhanced budget and an extended three week rehearsal period features a larger cast – no doubling up this time - and a deeper exploration of the powerful text and sub-text of the play. It will run at the Lyric from March 2 to 19.
Set between the present day and the years of the Second World War, the plot line is centred upon an elderly magician – the Great Nivelli, played by Dan Gordon - as he looks back on his younger self and the way in which the acquisition of a handful of conjuring tricks enabled him to survive the unsurvivable. It is the tale of a friendship which crosses generations, of hope in the darkest of times and of how man’s inhumanity to man shows no sign of abating.
'If anything, I think the play is even more relevant than it was a few years ago,' says McEneaney, during a brief break from rehearsals. 'We are seeing, day after day, hundreds of people trying and failing to get into the UK and other countries, particularly young people, children. When we did it originally those stories were not in the news. Now our television screens are saturated with heart-breaking images of refugees, deportees, people seeking asylum and safety. Young people are being left stranded at borders facing strangers and governments who are not inclined to offer them a helping hand. Nivelli’s War is the story of an adult’s memory of being an evacuee.'
The story begins and ends with the ageing Nivelli standing outside a theatre where he is to present one of his world-famous shows. The theatre doorman is in awe of the great man's reputation, but only he knows the chilling circumstances in which his skills were acquired and the generosity of the man who passed them on to him.
Nivelli began his life as Ernst, who was born into a family in Frankfurt. When the war intensifies, he is sent to the country to stay with his aunt, Tante Sofie, a woman tormented by her own fears and prejudices. Tension builds and in a desperate effort to find his way back home, Ernst meets a charismatic stranger called Mr. H, who shares his gift for magic with the boy. It is a gift which will protect them on the long, perilous trek through their war-torn country and which Ernst will treasure all his life.
In the spirit of Creativity Month, McEneaney, who was himself a boy magician, identifies with the way the play celebrates the generosity of previous generations who pass on their creative talents and knowledge to young people and endow them with a sense of joy and wonder.
'Nivelli only became the man he was because of the journey he went through in the company of Mr. H and by experiencing all the horrible things which are captured so vividly in his memory,' he explains. 'I am finding it thrilling to go back and re-investigate the depth and genius of Charles’s writing, to examine the motives of the characters. There are a number of scenes which are viewed through the prism of the memory of a young boy. The way he remembers them and the fact that they happened in such terrifying circumstances lend them an air of unreality and wonder, which transport us above the reality of mud and muck and persecution.'
The play is based on the true story of a man named Herbert Levin, who owned a magic shop in Frankfurt. Way has Levin swop around the spelling of his surname to come up with Nivelli, a suitably exotic name for a magician and one which does not carry Jewish overtones. In later years, Ernst will take on the name Nivelli in honour of his protector and mentor.
'Levin was not a good name to have back then - a Jewish name,' ruefully observes Mr. H. And indeed it was not. Suspicion and cruelty stalked the land. There is one particularly memorable scene in which Ernst and his aunt talk about a fox which prowls around the garden at night. The fox takes on a grotesque, threatening presence. One morning, Ernst spots its print in the mud. It is a human footprint.
'It came to me in a flash this time around - I couldn’t believe I hadn’t spotted it before,' says McEneaney. 'Substitute the word ‘fox’ for ‘Jew’ and the whole thing takes on a new dimension. Tante Sofie is the play’s embodiment of the Nazi movement. She is forever saying that Uncle Rudi knows how to deal with foxes – he shoots them. The way that the script moulds the fox as some kind of monstrous, evil creature heightens the notion of Nazi indoctrination and propaganda. Uncle Rudi’s actions are simply what you have to do to protect yourself. This is just one example of how Charles embraces density and builds up layers in his work. I am finding new things in the subtext on a daily basis.'
When the production opens in New York in April, a very special guest of honour will be present. As a young boy, Werner Reich, now aged 94, shared a bunk in Auschwitz with a certain Herbert Levin – Mr. H of the play. Levin taught the child some magic tricks. By performing his tricks for the guards and at public shows, Werner survived.
'Out of the blue, I got an e-mail from this man, who had noticed the show on the New Victory’s website,' says McEneaney. 'He told me that he knew Levin, Mr. H; he shared a bunk with him. After the war he went to the States and became a successful magician himself. Amazing, isn’t it? He has co-written a book called The Death Camp Magicians, which was recently published in America – long after we started work on the play. Another new book has been written about him, for children, called The Magician of Auschwitz by Kathy Kacer. Fact really is stranger than fiction. We can’t wait to meet Werner and for him to see the show.
'Hearing from him and sharing his story totally confirms for me the power and the immediacy of theatre. Make a kid look at a stage and say ‘anything is possible’ and the sense of wonder comes alive.'
Nivelli's War is at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from March 2 to 19 and is featured as part of this year's Belfast Children's Festival (March 10 to 15), one of the highlight events of Creativity Month. It then moves to Broadway, playing at New York’s New Victory Theater from April 27 to May 11. To book tickets visit www.lyrictheatre.co.uk/event/nivellis-war or call 028 9038 1081.