Under The Skin

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A forbidden love affair during the holocaust

The Nazis didn't only murder Jews but also homosexuals. This gives Under the Skin a double sense of danger and tragedy that is difficult to grasp. Who could claim to understand living under such dread and still taking such risks for love.

The play shines a light on one of the lesser known stories from the Second World War, the love affair between Nazi officer Anneliese Kohlmann who the inmates nickname “Bube” - German for boy - and one of the female prisoners in Neuengamme Concentration Camp. Based on Kohlmann’s Belsen trial protocols, the Israeli playwright Yonatan Calderon turned the documented confessions into a theatrical dramatization that cleverly explores structures of power in love and war. The storyline alternates between two periods in time: 1991 when a young German journalists shows up on Holocaust survivor Lotte Rosner’s door step in Tel Aviv uninvited and a second timeline in Neuengamme labour camp where a young Lotte first meets officer Kohlmann. The theatrical tool Calderon uses to explore the psychological depth of the characters is a simple yet effective one: the two actors switch roles. The elderly Lotte turns into the Nazi officer, the investigative journalist plays the inmate. This little Brechtian trick not only highlights the shifting of power but also creates two meaty roles for the actors.

Adi Loya and Batel Israel in Under The Skin. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

Tik-sho-ret Theatre Company, formed in 2005 to give a platform to Jewish and Israeli theatre in the UK, debuted the English version of Under The Skin at the 2017 Women and War Festival before taking it to Camden Fringe and now The Old Red Lion Theatre. It is an all female production.

As the journalist and the young inmate Natasha Lanceley shines, switching between a stubborn tomboy and the rather gentle lyrical Lotte who was a promising ballerina in Prague before her detention crushed her career. Adi Loya is spikey and guarded as the elderly Lotte but shows a softer side of the German Nazi officer. They are joined by Batel Israel as Lotte’s ballet school friend Ida Berman. She also does a cameo as a sadistic camp doctor and a chilling Cabaret Host, delivering one of the most shocking lines of the play.

Natasha Lanceley and Batel Israel in Under the Skin. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

The constant switching of time line and characters mean a lot of costume changes which director Ariella Eshed overcomes with movement, referencing the role of ballet in the story. Anneliese Kohlmann first spots Lotte dancing in leather ballet slippers that Ida secretly crafts from stolen leftover bits of leather. Every action of the two young girls is risking death and yet they are holding on defiantly to their identity and humanity. Kohlmann takes a liking to the young dancer and orders Lotte to her office. It is not clear if this first meeting is an abuse of power or if the feeling is mutual. But back in her quarters, Lotte has seen a different, more human side to the Nazi woman. They start an affair. Lotte is given special treatment and extra food. Her friends are suspicious of the arrangement and stop talking to her. Lotte shares with Kohlmann the story of Giselle, a role she once hoped to dance: Giselle is a young peasant girl in love with a village boy. But he is actually a nobleman in disguise and their love could never be. A fitting allegory for the two unlikely lovers in the play. What Lotte doesn’t reveal though, is that the story of Giselle ends in tragedy.

Kohlmann’s infatuation with Lotte grows so strong that the two women attempt to run away together. The plans goes horribly wrong, with the staging hinting at Lotte being sexually assaulted and Kohlmann standing by in silence in order to protect herself and keep her secret.

The young journalist reveals herself to be Anneliese Kohlmann’s granddaughter, on an investigative mission to find out if her Nazi grandmother, who she sees as a stain on the family, was really nothing but a monster. After her initial reluctance, the elderly Lotte opens up and we learn that Anneliese Kohlmann smuggled herself into Bergen Belsen camp in an inmate’s uniform and lived there as a prisoner just to be close to Lotte. When the camp is liberated by British soldiers, a furious Lotte takes charge and exposes the Nazi in inmate’s clothes.

The play not only shines a light on one of the darkest chapters in history but also digs deep into the human psyche to explore what war and what power does to people and what love can do. The tiny glimpse of sympathy the Holocaust survivor shows the third generation German woman before the blackout is a glimmer of hope in a tragic and emotionally challenging story.

Under the Skin is at The Old Red Lion Theatre until 31 March