|Stuart Williams and Michael Countryman|
Photo by Lia Chang
A small plaque at the entrance to the Bethnal Green underground station in London commemorates the event: “Site of the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War.”
In the grand scheme of things, it was just another unfortunate incident of World War II – this loss of 173 lives – a bit of “collateral damage” easily forgotten in the wake of the many millions of civilian losses overall, or even among the 40,000 non-combatant deaths that occurred during the infamous “Blitz,” the German air attacks that blanketed Britain.
What makes this event noteworthy beyond the interests of the families and friends of the victims is how it came to pass, during what was a common enough occurrence as the neighborhood’s residents were prompted by air-raid sirens to seek shelter. Tragically, without a single plane on the scene, without a bomb being dropped or a weapon fired, more than half of the shelter-seekers fell, were pushed, or tumbled over one another and were crushed to death after a woman carrying an infant lost her footing on the unlit staircase, starting an unstoppable pileup.
Many years later, in 2010, writer Jessica Francis Kane made the incident the basis for a novel, The Report. In it, the author used the mode of fiction to explore the aftermath, including how the official inquiry was steeped in wartime secrecy that left the community puzzled, angry, and bitter.
Now playwright Martin Casella has translated that novel into a play, also called The Report, being given a first-class production as part of FringeNYC.
Michael Countryman, an American actor with the chops to pull off a credible upper class British accent and demeanor, plays Sir Laurence Dunne, the man charged with investigating the incident and writing the official report. As the play opens, it is 30 years later. Sir Laurence has a visitor, Paul (Stuart Williams), a documentary filmmaker who wants to uncover the truth about what really happened that night. The play flows back and forth in time as the uniformly excellent cast of 12 enacts the event and provides the sometimes contradictory, sometimes self-serving testimony.
Be aware that things move slowly at first, paced like one of those genteel BBC dramas on Masterpiece Theatre that we find ourselves enraptured by despite ourselves. During the first act, the playwright takes great pains to keep things at an emotional remove, so that our attention is focused on the gathering of details. What was the mood of the crowd that night? Did the distrust of “foreigners” (meaning Jewish refugees who had recently moved into the area) feed into a frenzy of panic? Were the people spooked by the sounds of some new secret anti-aircraft weaponry that was being tested? Was the entrance to the underground station so poorly designed and poorly lit as to invite disaster? And, most significantly, did the woman with the baby really stumble, or was she shoved?
The tone of the work shifts gradually so that during the second act, as the bits and pieces of information become the stories of real people, the play turns out to be not so much about the victims as it is about the psychological impact on the survivors. Some are devastated by their losses, while others are torn apart by a sense of guilt or responsibility, or they feel compelled to cover up errors in judgment or irresponsible behaviors that they relive over and over again.
Director Alan Muraoka does a splendid job keeping things well-paced and accessible for the audience, despite the numerous characters who are being portrayed, the back-and-forth movement of time, and the layers of information we need to sift through.
Among the cast, Mr. Countryman and Mr. Williams are standouts, as is Zoë Watkins as Ada, who is most affected by the disaster and of her role in it. For the survivors, it is not enough that this was a terrible accident for which no explanation can suffice. Their lives are undone, and that, more than anything, is the truth of the story of Bethnal Green.
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