A debonair gent in a suit, wearing classic cabaret white face, red lipstick and a yellow crown, strides onto the stage, rips the yellow Star of David off his jacket and casually tosses it away. He is The King (Robert Jarman), one of the exaggerated comic characters in Prince Bettliegend, a satirical musical revue written by young Czech-Jewish prisoners in the World War II ghetto at Terezín (or Theresienstadt as the Germans called it).

Gideon Payten-Griffiths, Kevin Hunt (accordion), Winston Weng (bass), Yana Taylor in Prince Bettliegend. Photograph © David Goldman

The show originally featured a libretto by Josef Lustig and Jiri Spitz while František Kovanic wrote lyrics to accompany existing popular jazz melodies from the 1930s by Czech composer Jaroslav Ježek, who was known for composing songs for revues and films. The songs have survived, thanks to the fact that a Terezín survivor called Josef Bor donated a script containing the lyrics to the Jewish Museum of Prague where it has been preserved.

The plot, however, has largely been lost to time though survivors from the camp had a few fragmentary recollections. Using these, researchers and dramaturgs Lisa Peschel and Joseph Toltz together with director Ian Maxwell and performers Nigel Kellaway, Robert Jarman, Katia Molino, Gideon Payten-Griffiths and Yana Taylor set about reconstructing a narrative. During a month-long rehearsal process at the University of Sydney, the actors improvised using the survivors’ testimonies and the lyrics as a starting point to come up with a plot.

The reconstructed show is now having its world premiere in The Sound Lounge at the Seymour Centre as part of Out of the Shadows: Rediscovering Jewish Music and Theatre, a festival emerging from an international research project to scour archives and revive musical and theatrical works by Jewish refugee artists.

Bearing a resemblance to the work of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, Prince Bettliegend satirises life in the Jewish ghetto at Terezín where favouritism and corruption were rife – acknowledging that some of the Jewish prisoners became involved in theft and bribery in order to survive. The shadow of the “work transports” or trains that took people from the camps is also ever present.

Katia Molino in Prince Bettliegend. Photograph © David Goldman

Research notes available in the Out of the Shadows brochure (and in a questionnaire given to the audience as part of a research study into emotional responses to performance) provide interesting background information about life at Terezín.

Terezín, which is 40 miles northwest of Prague, served as a transit camp for Jews of Central Europe before they were sent on to slave labour and death camps in the East. The prisoners were told they were going to a work camp or to build another ghetto, but suspicions naturally abounded.

The Nazis kept Terezín fairly liveable, with shops, a bank, a coffee house and a Jewish Council, and used it as a kind of show camp to hide what was really going on from the rest of the world. A busy cultural life sprang up with 18 different performance spaces. While they were on stage, performers were even allowed to remove their Jewish star – hence the flamboyant gesture of The King at the start of the show when he flings his aside.

Watching the show, you wonder how on earth they got away with all the references to “the outgoing transport” but the research notes explain that the Czech-speaking Jews were protected by the language barrier between themselves and the Germans, hence the inclusion of such daring comments.

A quote from one of the survivors explains why Prince Bettliegend was presented as comedy: “I don’t know if anyone can imagine what laughter meant in a Nazi concentration camp. In spite of all the dirt, ugliness and horror, or rather exactly because of them, we all sought stimulus that would give us hope.”

This reconstructed production maintains the irreverent comedic tone that survivors remember, without shying away from references to the tragedy that was unfolding.

In the story as it is now, a young man (Gideon Payten-Griffiths) arrives at the ghetto in Terezín and is quickly divested of his hat, coat and scarf by fellow prisoners in a kind of pick-pocket dance. Donning a crown, he is named Prince Bettliegend. However, he soon falls ill, struck by a mysterious illness. Declared bettliegend, or bedridden, he no longer has to work. What’s more, he is spared from taking his place on the work transport – though someone else must then go in his place.

The King promises that anyone who can cure him will marry his daughter Princess Privilege (Nigel Kellaway). At the same time, he forbids any doctors from attending him, both wanting him to recover, yet not.

Other characters include Hocus and Pocus (Katia Molino and Yana Taylor) who boast of their criminal skills and an eccentric Magician (Kellaway).

The lyrics (translated and adapted by Lisa Peschel) and the new libretto contain all kinds of contemporary vernacular and jokes – “You are not the boss of me” in response to a suggested arranged marriage, Vitamin P (“for protection”) and a couple of nods to Shakespeare (“to eat or not to eat the dumpling, that is the question”).

Robert Jarman. Photograph © David Goldman

The script also adds historical details (including an amusing song accompanied by a Terezín glossary on cue cards) to help audiences understand the context in which the show was originally performed, and what the original writers were satirising.

The music – performed by a band of students from the Jazz Unit at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music led by music director and arranger Kevin Hunt – has a definite Weimar flavor, with numbers ranging from jaunty, jazzy tunes to haunting, baleful ballads.

Directed by Ian Maxwell, the staging is of necessity simple on the fairly cramped stage, with a single bed with an institutional grey blanket centrestage, a white canvas curtain at the front, and a few suitcases piled up on either side of the stage. The eight musicians sit around the back of the stage. (Sightlines aren’t great it has to be said, with rows of seats on the flat floor, in front of the stage which isn’t much raised).

The performers all understand the performance style and turn in exuberant, heightened comic performances with a touch of the grotesque, yet are also able to stop the laughter dead with several poignant numbers. A surprise interjection from the audience (which I won’t give away) also works well.

Prince Bettliegend is a strange little show, and yet given its context it’s impossible not to be moved, shocked and horrified by much of it. Sad though it is, we still need to be reminded that such things happened – and should never be allowed to happen again.

Prince Bettliegend: A Cabaret from Terezín has one more performance in The Sound Lounge, Seymour Centre on August 10


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