1943. Nazi occupied Guernsey. Widow and mother Jeanne Becquet does whatever it takes to keep her adolescent daughter Estelle and daughter-in-law Lily safe on an island filled with danger and fear. Her toughest test arrives in the shape of the terrifying Commander Von Pfunz, who's romantic advances may prove to be the only way to keep her family alive. But tensions intensify when a mysterious young man is washed ashore with no memory of who he is. Fluent in German and the Queen's English, is he a downed RAF pilot, a shipwrecked SS interrogator, a local man with a serious condition that has brought about amnesia or a saviour sent from heaven to answer Estelle's most fervent hopes? The stakes are high and getting it wrong, means certain death.
Gabriel was the debut play from writer Moira Buffini and was first performed at London's Soho theatre in 1997. It has been revived this year by director Kate McGregor and Theatre6 and is in Liverpool this week before continuing its tour across the country. I compel you to get a ticket if its playing near you because Gabriel is the kind of play that needs to be seen right here, right now. It may be set in 1943, but the relevance it has to the current social and political situation is so striking, its message has never been more important. It's a cliche to hear the phrase 'I laughed and I cried' but I genuinely did laugh at this often surprisingly very funny (both darkly funny and farcically funny) piece and I did cry as it touched upon the Nazi's Final Solution.
Gabriel is a play about identity. The central crux of the narrative is of course just who is the mysterious stranger that Lily and Estelle rescue from the shoreline and christen 'Gabriel'. But identity is also an issue for Major Von Pfunz, who is at pains to convince the family that he is not just a soldier, or a Nazi, but also a poet and an otherwise sensitive and nice man who has been thrust into the chaos of war that ultimately fascinates him. Then there's the identity of Jeanne Becquet, a woman whose previously high social standing has sunk as low as it can possibly get and who attempts to maintain a sense of withering dignity despite placing herself in venal situations of the black market and an uneasy alliance with the occupying forces. Lastly for the characters there's the other two women of the Becquet family, Lily and Estelle. The daughter-in-law Lily is hiding her true identity from the authorities because she knows being a Jewish woman spells unimaginable danger, whilst Estelle's flair for the unruly and her precocious imagination becomes something more important under occupation.
Identity is of course something that people are in danger of losing during conflict, and it is clear that the women in Gabriel, isolated on a small island that was once their home but is now both a battlefield and a prison, and abandoned by their menfolk who have gone off to war and by their government, must fight for this as well as for their lives, their homes and for the chance of freedom in the face of such hardship and uncertainty. What makes Gabriel stand out from other productions about war is the fact that it is told almost uniquely from the female perspective. Not only is it written by a female playwright and directed by a very talented lady, it also boasts some exceptionally strong roles for women, who easily outnumber their male counterparts in the tale. This is of course accurate for the story - the women of the Channel Islands had to forge an uneasy alliance with their Nazi occupiers, as the men of fighting age fled to the mainland prior to the enemy arrival to join up - as well as helping dramatically to raise the stakes as we witness these lonely, desperate women fighting (ostensibly a masculine response in narratives) against the odds.
I must admit when I first heard that Liverpool Playhouse was staging Gabriel, the main attraction for me was the casting of Paul McGann. Anyone who follows my blog will now I'm a big fan of McGann's and that Withnail and I is my favourite film (it is McGann as the eponymous 'I' aka Marwood in the film who is my avatar when posting on here and on much of the net in general). As Major Von Pfunz, he instantly understands the issue of identity. A handsome and charismatic actor, he nevertheless plays ugly with a severe short back and sides, small horn rimmed glasses, a perfectly pitched Teutonic accent and an overbearing physicality to become the unsettling Nazi bogeyman figure; the epitome of the unwanted guest. Initially he arrives on stages speaking extremely broken English and acting like an oafish drunk, but we soon see that this is a charade designed to be privy to Jeanne's innermost secrets and feelings. Like Columbo, he plays the idiot to get at the truth, and the truth is something that Von Pfunz obsesses over. He believes Jeanne is the only person who sees him for who he truly is and is determined to convince the family that he is not just a soldier performing his duty in the chaos of war, but that he is essentially a good, kindly man and a poet. However, the Nazi doctrine is never far from the surface; his poems are beautifully drawn but are exclusively about the horrors he has witnessed in the concentration camps of Poland. When his ideology rises to the surface it does so with devastating consequences.
The rest of the cast is made up of the aforementioned Melvin as Mrs Lake, Robin Morrissey as the mysterious Gabriel, Sarah Schoenbeck as the cockney Jewish daughter-in-law Lily and Venice Van Someren as the precocious Estelle, and each of them play their roles brilliantly. Morrissey is rightly understated in the role of the enigmatic amnesiac found on the beach and now ensconced in the attic, and who may prove to be the Becquet's saviour or damnation, whilst Schoenbeck skilfully conveys to the audience the danger and anguish of her predicament as a Jewish woman, hiding in plain sight from the increasingly threatening Von Pfunz. As the story develops, Lily becomes close to Gabriel (it's said on several occasions that he looks not unlike Miles, Lily's fighter pilot husband and Jeanne's son, who the latter is resigned to believing his fate in the war is sealed) and their relationship is depicted tenderly and believably - two passing strangers brought together by the uncertainty and desperation of war. Lastly Van Someren is a joy as the brattish Estelle, expertly depicting someone younger than herself, whose natural juvenile tendency towards mischief gains a greater resonance under occupation, and whose wild imagination compels her to create 'a square of power' to call on aid beyond this earth, which may not be so far removed from reality as her disapproving family would initially suspect.
Apart from its strong feminine perspective, what I found intoxicating about Gabriel is how its central mystery lends itself to the supernatural and to religion and divinity. The figure of Gabriel is a constant enigma as his true identity remains tantalisingly out of reach. Each character has a view or an explanation on him and who he is, some credibly down to earth and some spiritually beyond our ken, but it is satisfyingly left to the audience to take from the play whatever they wish. Though the play's action bears no real comparison, this sense of the mystical, of the stranger from who knows where being accepted into the family home, reminded me of Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle. These metaphorical, divine elements are carefully drawn out in Carla Goodman's skillful set design and McGregor's keen understanding that the play should somehow represents Heaven, Earth and Hell. The set is raised to allow for a sense of the lodge being built above tunnels the Todt workers are excavating for their Nazi overlords; when Estelle talks about hearing the tunnelling work beneath the floorboards it gives a real sense of an underworld below them, which is clearly a metaphor for hell. Then there's the attic space beside the main set where Gabriel is being kept; closer to heaven and where some of the play's most hopeful, loving and tender moments occur. Lastly the set itself is on a slant, which suggests the family are literally living on the edge in such unpredictable times.
Following the play there was the opportunity for a Q+A session with the cast (announced by McGann as the cast took their bows with a wave of the hand which he wondered was perhaps a Nazi salute; "sick", he jokingly shrugged) but as my train was due to leave I couldn't stick around for. A shame, but I know that the play itself will stay with me for a long time.