KAMP created and performed by Herman Helle, Pauline Kalker and Arlène Hoornweg (Hotel Modern). At the Enwave Theatre (231 Queens Quay West). May 23-26. $35. Rating: NNNN
Seeing films like Schindler's List or Life Is Beautiful doesn't prepare you for the starkness and emotional chill of Kamp, devised and performed by Dutch company Hotel Modern.
The set, stretching out before the audience, is a small-scale model of a concentration camp such as Auschwitz, complete with a metal-worked gate that proudly but ironically proclaims "Arbeit macht frei" ("Labour makes you free"). Barbed wire and electrified fences, gas chambers, barracks jammed with several levels of sleeping platforms, tracks and a train that brings in new inmates, a bar-room for the officers - they're all part of the miniature design.
But it's the people - represented by small puppets - who live (and die) here who are the most striking. Only eight centimetres high, there are some 2,000 of them, their mouths and eyes empty and wide open with - awe? wonder? disbelief? - about what is happening to and around them. Some are stand-alone figures, others part of a group of 40 or 50 attached to platforms that are moved around the playing area.
What's disturbing is that each is different but none has a visible personality. These are people, mostly dressed in black-and-white striped uniforms, who have had their individuality stolen from them, forced to perform mechanical, never-ending labours that are Sisyphean at best.
The show's creators, Herman Helle, Pauline Kalker and Arlène Hoornweg, move through the set activating the tiny figures in puppetry fashion or using cameras to project the action onto the rear wall, putting the audience at a godlike remove, watching the action in the camp without doing (or being able to do) anything about it.
Over the course of an hour in a dozen or so episodes, a man sweeps the grounds (and speeds up when a guard comes close); a guard in a tower surveys the controlled mass of prisoners below him; someone pours poisonous chemicals down a hole into the room beneath filled with people; and new arrivals, not knowing what to do, exit the train that's brought them to this hell.
A scene in which officers get drunk in their barracks segues into a shot of piled bodies, one of which isn't yet dead.
Some of the most upsetting moments involve no people at all. The camera shows a room filled with shoes, another with suitcases containing everyday items.
Ruud van der Pluijm's live soundscape is equally unnerving: wind, insects, what might be mechanical sputterings, jingoistic and patriotic songs. Most horrific are the amplified sounds of a soldier repeatedly clubbing an exhausted worker who's fallen down, and the crackle of an electrified fence when a desperate prisoner throws himself against it.
This is an admirably devised show that leaves viewers limp at its end, barely able to applaud. We've been witnesses to an event that is hard to comprehend.
Research begun 13 years ago by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reveals that more than 42,000 sites, ranging from concentration camps to small ghettoes, were set up by the Nazis from 1933 to 45. That's far more than the 10,000 the organization expected to uncover.
All the more reason to bear witness and pass on to others what we've seen of the darkness in human nature. That's one way we can help eradicate it.