There are many harrowing stories that families have about war. How they managed to escape, the family they had to leave behind and the many sacrifices they all had to make in order to survive. One of these many stories has been told through a book called, Driftwood: Escape and Survival Through Art by Eva de Jong Duldig and was released in 2017.
The story follows her father Karl Duldig, a sculpture artist from Vienna in the late 1930s, along with her mother, Slawa and Eva herself as a baby, as they flee from Austria during the German occupation of WWII. After bouncing around several countries seeking asylum, the Jewish family eventually arrive in Australia with a hope for a safe future.
Directed by Gary Abrams with book and lyrics by Jane Bodie, Driftwood the Musical is a retelling of the original book. The production opens with Eva (Sara Reed), along with her mother, Slawa (Tania de Jong AM) and father, Karl (Anton Berezin), as they celebrate Eva’s 18th birthday. Aside from a beautiful cake made by her mother, the parents decide it is time that Eva learns about her family’s past and bring out a selection of boxes containing old photographs and letters. The boxes are an archive into the history of her parents and as Eva begins to sift through the contents, we are transported back to the late 1930s when Slawa has made a marvellous invention, the foldable umbrella. It is true, Slawa created and patented the original collapsible foldable umbrella that we take for granted today.
To the side of stage, Eva looks on as the history of her family is played out, narrating the story as she continues to sift through the contents of the boxes. Life begins to head down a dark path when Germany annexes Austria and begins to record the addresses and assets of all Jews. Slawa grows more and more anxious as to what the future will hold for her family’s safety and begs Karl to seek a safer place for them to live. What happens next is some of the most harrowing and heartbreaking stories I have heard. The saddest thing is this stuff is happening again and these stories have never felt more raw.
I had no idea what to expect when I entered the theatre for this show. Aside from the synopsis online as I sat in the foyer before heading in, I had done no research. Discovering this production was based on a true story had me hanging on every scene in disbelief that these things actually took place. And whilst the core of this musical is about the heartbreak of war and unfathomable sacrifices people had to make, it is also a tale of triumph and bravery that had me pondering if I would ever be strong enough to stand strong though such oppression. I laughed, I cried and most importantly, I felt the strength of this family’s love for each other.
The production is relatively small with a cast of only five. Sara Reed is wonderful in her role as daughter Eva and her storyteller skills are perfect as the narrator. Michaela Burger portrays Slawa’s sister Rella masterfully and is accompanied by a fantastic Troy Sussman as her husband Marcel. Sussman also plays several other characters and portrays them so perfectly, I could swear they were different people. Then there are the two powerhouse vocal performances by Tania de Jong AM and Anton Berezin as Slawa and Karl, respectively. Both performers have a background in opera, and it shines every time they sing.
The set design by Jacob Battista accompanied by the costuming from Kim Bishop really took me back to the period of the story. There is even a large screen above the stage in the shape of a long piece of worn-out parchment, which is used to help tell the story and is filled with projections of real photos and snippets of actual letters as the performance is played out. This clever design draws the audience back in time along with Eva as she reads the letters. It is simple, yet very effective.
There is a lot to love about this production and I do not think I can fault it. I am always captivated by theatre that is based on true stories and history, and Driftwood is certainly one of them. One thing I also found out about this production is that the family home that Eva and her parents lived in is actually less than a five-minute drive from my home. It has also been preserved by Eva as an art studio and museum to the works of art that her father Karl and mother Slawa had created during their lives. After seeing the production, I definitely will be making time to check out the studio soon.
Driftwood the Musical is performing at Melbourne’s Chapel off Chapel in Prahran through until the 28th of May.
Tickets and information can be found at https://driftwoodthemusical.com.au
Photography by Cameron Grant, Parenthesy.