The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: Theatre Review

When author John Boyne set out to write a novel about an unlikely friendship between two young boys, he didn’t realize that what he’d end up with would be widely used to educate people about one of the darkest chapters in human history. He wrote it as a fable, but is glad that his novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, has lead many readers to go on to consult important works of non-fiction by historians and survivors of the Holocaust. To that end, the book has also been adapted by Angus Jackson as a play aimed at both children and adults.

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The topic might initially seem to resist the necessarily light treatment that a few hours on stage can provide, but the conceit of presenting the story through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, namely Bruno, the nine year old protagonist, cleverly provides some distance between the structure of the story and the horrors of what we know is occurring. The story revolves around the move that his family must make to accommodate his father’s new position in the Nazi regime. His childish misconceptions, such as believing that they moved to “Out-With” (Auschwitz) on the orders of “The Fury” (Hitler, the Fuhrer), reveal an ignorance that although is perhaps understandable, can be off-putting in its mischaracterization of what is going on.

Bruno and his mother and sister must join their father, who is proud of the “work” he is doing on the part of the Fatherland in the newly-annexed Poland. None of them want to leave their privileged life in Berlin, and end up dealing with their unwanted exile in different ways: Bruno’s teenaged sister turns sullen and barks at the help, his mother embarks on ill-advised dalliances with daytime drinking and a handsome young Nazi officer, and Bruno himself decides to fulfil his dream of becoming an explorer by slipping out at night and discovering a large barbed wire fence. Living behind this forbidding barrier are a number of people, including a boy of his age, Shmuel, wearing what Bruno takes to be striped pyjamas. The two boys, upon discovering that they were born on the same day, strike up a friendship which ultimately leads to a startling climax.

There are some moments of beauty in the staging, including a gorgeous modular set which is very evocative despite its simplicity, effective and atmospheric video supertitles to set the scene, and a lyrical section where stagehands lift and swing and twist Bruno as he makes his nighttime escape. This latter sequence gloriously conveys the movements of a child through the woods from his perspective, as he imagines himself to be a mighty explorer, soldier, and superhero wrapped into one. But unfortunately a great production can’t save a tepid script. This story may have worked well as a novel, but as theatre, it is never sufficient: the horrors of the topic can’t be portrayed in a manner which is horrible enough, and Bruno and his sister’s inability to realize what is going on strains credulity. The final words of the play are uttered by the maid, once the audience has been brought out of the fable and back to the well-lit stage of the present: “All this happened a long time ago and could never happen again.” Sadly, nothing in the play up to that point would lead us to place any confidence in this claim. But at least it is keeping the story alive and at the forefront of discussion:
“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” -Elie Wiesel

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