Café Scheherazade Review

Café Scheherazade is a play written by Therese Radic, adapted from Arnold Zable’s much loved book. [A disclaimer to begin this review, I have yet to read the novel, although having read and heard Zable’s writing I do have an idea about the pacing and style of his writing]. It tells the story of a café in Acland Street, St. Kilda that was the home of discussion, debate and company for Jewish people in Melbourne displaced by the atrocities in Europe and Soviet Russia in WWII. It was a place for them to drink and eat together and to tell stories and it is into this café that the audience is invited, to share in these often heartbreakingly intense tales of survival. There are strong images that appear throughout this play – the Japanese Ambassador stamping papers for Jewish refugees to escape to the East even as his train was leaving and he was summoned back to Japan in disgrace – the mother giving her scarf to her liberation fighting son – the little boy sitting down in the middle of a frozen river – a second and recently formed family was murdered leaving a man entirely alone – and the moon offering an alternative world for a collapsing man marching through the snow. The voices are haunted in this café as they relate their stories. The desperation of these people, the humanity is a stark contrast to the warmth and comfort of the schnitzels, black forest cake and coffee of the café. In reading a little about the process of adapting the novel it is easy to believe that the original script for Café Scheherazade was over three hours long. For these are family histories and memories that deserve the time to evolve in the minds of audiences. Now at ninety minutes the play does its best to dramatise the few chosen stories. Yet even with these few selected stories it felt that there was an almost frenetic pace for all of it to fit. Memories moved between each other and crossed over and at times it was a little difficult at times to discern the separate integrity of each story. To do justice to each, perhaps a structure of separate short plays woven into the overall narrative of the café might have been an alternative option. Certainly the most identifiable stories of the play are that of the owners and how they survived, met each other and eventually established the café. The story of Masha Zeleznikow was especially beautifully performed by Marta Kaczmarek. Her movements, her voice and her performance were so real. In light of the rapidly moving scenes, the times where the words were allowed to sit in the air were amongst the most powerfully affecting theatre that I have ever seen. After relating the horrors of forcing parents to choose which children would be accompanying them and which would be left to die the character of Avram Zeleznikow paused. There was a heavy silence before he very quietly and slowly said: “It was impossible to understand. It can never be understood.” This line encompasses the both bemusement of reflecting back on such horrors but also the importance of remembering what has passed so we can collectively prevent any such happenings occurring again in the future. Director Bagryana Popov wisely chose a non-naturalistic aesthetic for this piece and it was accompanied by the wonderful live music of Ernie Gruner and Justin Marshall. The accordion especially proved a diverse instrument providing breaths of wind to accompany one story. There was a great sense of community in this production, with a strong ensemble cast and musical direction by Elissa Goodrich. Many of those involved had been a part of the process since the plays first readings. Fortyfivedownstairs has become a Melbourne institution and has become a valuable venue both in terms of an adaptable theatrical space and the variety of stories that are performed there. This was demonstrated in the note in the program by the Artistic Director of the organisaion when she described the necessity of this work. Café Scheherazade is now closed but through the novel and this play the stories and the memories and its people will live on.