JLife caught up with playwright Diane Samuels ahead of Kindertransport’s return to the stage at Manchester’s Opera House.
To mark the 80th anniversary, when mainly Jewish children were transported from homes across Europe and relocated to the UK before the outbreak of the Second World War, Manchester’s Opera House presents the play, Kindertransport, from 1st to 5th May.
Straddling two timelines, in 1938 when a young girl is forced onto a train to escape the looming threat of war, and the 1980s in Manchester as a mother prepares for her daughter to leave the family home, the play follows the struggles of a woman trying to come to terms with her past. Around 25 years on from when it was originally penned by author and playwright Diane Samuels, the script’s themes of displacement, trauma, separation and identity are more relevant than ever. JLife decided to get the inside story on Diane’s career and the influences behind her most famous work…
Are you surprised that Kindertransport still continues to draw such crowds?
I’m very thankful that Kindertransport has touched so many people, has continued to be produced and studied all over the world, and that it still finds a place in people’s hearts.
I suppose that its universal appeal lies in the core theme of separation between child and mother. Also, my focus when writing the play was to probe the inner life where memory is shaped by trauma, and history meets story, in order to gain psychological and emotional insight into how a damaged psyche can survive, possibly recover, and whether there might ever be an opportunity to thrive. This journey within is what Kindertransport also offers each member of the audience if they allow themselves to go where it ventures.
What inspired you to base a play on this?
Three incidents led me to write Kindertransport. The first was a discussion with a close friend, who described her struggle to deal with the guilt of survival. Her father had been on the Kindertransport and I was struck by how her parent’s feelings had been passed down so fully to her.
The second incident was the experience of another friend who, at his father’s funeral, overheard his mother recalling her time at Auschwitz. Until that moment he had no idea that his mother had been in a concentration camp. Finally, the third occurrence was the admission by a woman on a television documentary about the Kindertransport; she said that she felt rage towards her dead parents at their abandonment of her, even though that abandonment had saved her life. At the time I was a young mother and I was struck by the ways in which parents and children struggled to deal with parting.
Do you think this story still feels timely today?
People are always being displaced, moving around the planet and leaving home. Violent displacement has long-term effects as well as short-term challenges. The play gives audiences a chance to reflect on the long-term, deeply emotional and psychological effects, while the news is focused on the acute challenges of survival. Many Kinder, now very elderly, have been instrumental in pressing the British government to allow child refugees to come into Britain.
Why did you choose to set the play in Manchester?
I grew up in Liverpool and wanted to set it in a northern city that was familiar to me from my own childhood and yet had some distance from it too. Manchester fitted the bill perfectly.
Manchester is famous for its arts venues!
I visit my dad and stepmother in Liverpool every now and then and have friends and family in Manchester. My eldest son was also a student in Manchester, studying film and drama, so I used to visit him there and see the city through new eyes. The art galleries and arthouse cinemas and the Royal Exchange theatre are favourites – I’ll never forget seeing Max Wall there in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
How did it all start, and what inspired you to pursue a career in writing?
I grew up in Liverpool in the 1960s and 1970s and attended the King David primary and secondary schools. I always loved acting and making up stories, and in my teens I joined the Shifrin Drama Group at Harold House, the Jewish community centre and took part in many productions. This provided an invaluable basis for making theatre and writing plays from the perspective of embodying language, story, characters and space. I then studied History at the University of Cambridge where I continued to devise and direct.
Are you working on any new projects?
I’m focusing on writing powerful, substantial roles for women of all ages to speak and sing, and I’m currently working with composer Gwyneth Herbert on The Rhythm Method, a musical love story, funded by the Wellcome Trust.
In addition, I’m adding the finishing touches to Waltz with Me, a new play with music, that is projected to receive its world premiere in New York in 2019. I’m also preparing Song of Dina with the composer Maurice Chernick. It’s a full-length choral piece and the libretto is in Hebrew as well as English – marking the first time I’ve written professionally in Hebrew. I’m inspired to continue making work that bring people together collectively to share intimate, private stories that open hearts and minds.
To book tickets to Kindertransport, visit Atgtickets.com/shows/kindertransport/opera-house-manchester.