Director Jillian Keiley's ensemble-driven production of The Diary of Anne Frank at the Stratford Festival is a revelation.
Keiley's refreshing and devastating staging should be used as a template to introduce this astonishing document of the Holocaust to a new generation. It hits hard – whether you're hearing this story for the first or 40th time.
Most directors see The Diary of Anne Frank, understandably, as a play about Anne Frank.
But Keiley, who is the artistic director of the English theatre at the National Arts Centre, has refocused attention onto the diary and its readers, onto how and why we have been passing this record of ordinary moments under extraordinary circumstances down decade after decade as the horror of history recedes further and further into the distance.
To open her production, Keiley has each of the 17 cast members stand in a line, introduce themselves, say what character they will be playing and then share a personal story. They talk about being 13 or about first love or about their family connections to the Second World War and the Holocaust.
Kevin Bundy – who will be playing Mr. van Daan, whose family hides in the secret annex along with the Franks – talks about being a father of two teenager girls and finding it hard to know how much privacy to give them.
Yanna McIntosh, who plays Mrs. van Daan, talks about how, when she first learned of the Holocaust, she made plans for how she would hide her Jewish piano teacher if it ever came to it – until she realized that, as a black girl, the Nazis would come after her as well.
Bahia Watson, who is part of the chorus, wonders if she'll ever feel love in the same way she did as a teenager again. (The chorus sings Jonathan Monro's a capella compositions – moving but never manipulative – throughout.)
Last is Sara Farb, who is playing Anne Frank. She stands at the edge of the stage rather than at the centre of it, and tells us her grandmother survived the Stutthof concentration camp.
This prologue provokes laughter and tears, but most of all it forges an intense connection between the actors and the audience. An atmosphere of shared ritual is created – and makes the storytelling that follows incredibly powerful.
Keiley's ensemble approach doesn't end there. Instead of having Frank deliver a series of monologues drawn from her diary amid the scenes in this script (by Wendy Kesselman, adapted from the original 1955 stage version), the director has each member of the 17 actors take a turn picking up the diary – and stepping out to the lip of the stage to read from it.
You hear the words of this 13-year-old, then 15-year-old girl, coming out of the mouths of actors of different ages, sexes and races. The audience can get in on the act as well: If you record yourself reading aloud from Frank's diary in the lobby, the recording will be piped into the auditorium at a later date before the show and during intermission.
This universalizes Frank's story even as the company of actors particularize it – and you couldn't ask for a better cast than this one, performing in a simple, unadorned acting style, uniformly adopted. (Bretta Gerecke's gobstoppingly gorgeous see-through wooden set creates the simple, unadorned world around them.)
Farb is perfectly imperfect as Frank, as annoying as she is endearing in the early scenes; she's simply a girl growing into a woman.
I hadn't expected the squabbling Van Daans who share the annex with the Franks to even register – but a scene where Mrs. van Daan comforts her husband after he is caught stealing a piece of bread is absolutely breathtaking, McIntosh majestic and Bundy deeply human in his shame and terror.
And Joseph Ziegler breaks every heart in the house as father Otto Frank. He cracked mine when Mr. Frank was shown, simply listening to music in a brief scene change; and then he cracked mine right open, coming on at the end to deliver an epilogue that explains why the diary so abruptly comes to an end.
This production – ordinary and extraordinary in every way – is part of the Schulich Children's Plays series at Stratford Festival. I can't imagine a child or an adult who won't have their life deeply enriched by seeing it.