Driftwood The Musical is a wonderful piece of theatre. Cogently directed by Gary Abrahams, it is a stage adaptation by Jane Bodie of the epic memoir "Driftwood – Escape and Survival through Art", by Eva de Jong-Duldig. This memoir is an account of her parents' escape from Austria after the Anschluss of 1938, and their journey to Melbourne where they eventually settled (Hitler's Anschluss of Austria, for those who may not have drawn the parallel, was the playbook which Putin slavishly followed in his annexation of Crimea in 2014). Eva's mother Slava, played in this production by her daughter Tania de Jong, was a painter and designer; among her inventions was the foldable umbrella. Her father Karl Duldig was a sculptor, and the redemptive power of art plays a pivotal role in this story.

Driftwood is structured as Eva's project of piecing together, from letters photographs and documents, the story of the Duldigs’ flight from Vienna. She is in the present, in Australia, and what she discovers of the past is played out by the other four cast members. This structure works fantastically well in the first act, which is gripping theatre from start to finish, and in which the music seems to write itself. It is less effective in the second act, where the Australian sections seem less colourful, but the second act really comes to life in the passages where Eva goes to Wimbledon, and Slava visits her sister Rella in Paris (But no spoilers here – you have to see this scene for yourself!).

This work of theatre is not a musical in the sense of numbers separated by dialogue. The score, sensitively composed and played by Anthony Barnhill, flawlessly supported by violinist Roy Theaker and cellist Kalina Krusteva, is almost continuous. It supports dialogue, out of which the cast sing, frequently, anything from single phrases to short arias. Throughout the play singing comes when speaking feels too thin a medium to convey the intensity of feeling of the characters. Barnhill's music, based on the gestures of traditional Jewish songs and dances, faithfully supports the quick-silver changes in tempo of the emotions of the characters, and in particular underlines that sense of intense joy in family solidarity so central to Jewish life.

This entire epic is transmitted by a cast of five, four of whom play members of the Duldig family. The fifth, Nelson Gardner, plays all the other characters, adroitly switching between the Polish uncle, the French husband of Slava's sister Rella, the German Gauleiter who tries to dispossess the family, and various Australian minor characters. Every member of the cast sang beautifully, my favourite moment being the duet between the two sisters, sung by Tania de Jong and Michaela Burger; their blend was utterly perfect.

Both Tania and Michaela, and also the young New Zealand singer Bridget Costello, are trained opera singers as well as cabaret performers – and it shows. Bridget, who plays the part of the 18-year-old Eva trying to piece together the family story, has a mellifluous light lyric soprano voice, which is almost transparent to the emotions behind the lyrics. The two male cast members, Nelson Gardner and Anton Berezin who plays Karl Duldig, are cabaret singers, but this is not to detract from the power and flexibility of their singing, and Anton's in particular is capable of great variety in the different registers of his colourful baritone.

Michaela Burger as Rella is riveting on stage. Indeed, it might be fair to say that her acting in the first scenes was a touch “over the top”. But this over-the-top-ness seemed to me exactly right for the situation – after all, situations can't get much more extreme than fleeing for your lives. Like the Duldig's, her own family story, as indeed also those of Anton Berezin and Nelson Gardner, is one of fleeing their native land and suffering intense privations in the process. Michaela has in fact produced a dramatisation of her own family's story as the musical "A Migrant's Son”. I could not help thinking that some of the intense authenticity of this production had its origin in the lived experience of its cast.

And what can one say of Tania's performance? The granddaughter of the Duldigs, the daughter of Eva, and part of  the creative inspiration behind this whole production, her involvement in the show is total. She acts and sings her way through the role of her grandmother with an impressive array of emotions and reactions, which are entirely embodied in the intensity of her acting and her enthralling, passionate singing.

Abraham’s staging includes projections of original documents from the family’s years in Vienna, including the designs for the foldable umbrella, and the letter from the Nazi occupiers buying the patent for it. These details, and the fact that the set design for the Australian second act was identical to that for the Viennese first act, reflecting the Duldig’s desire to keep everything the same even though everything had changed, all help to make the audience’s experience of this drama more vivid.

Driftwood is a vivid affirmation of survival in adversity. But this is not to say that it neglects the fate of those who were not so lucky. The recurrent trope "there is something missing" understatedly reflects the fact that the entire rest of the family were murdered. (What do you think is happening in Crimea now?) Yet for any lover of theatre (and who else will go to this show?) the permeation of the story by the idea that art can be our salvation will resonate profoundly. The theatre has always been the most direct medium for interpreting the world, and Driftwood is an example of works which, while examining the past, can carry us into a future imbued with greater understanding.

Driftwood The Musical plays for another week in Chapel off Chapel in Melbourne, and then travels to Sydney.

Event details

Umbrella Foundation presents
Driftwood The Musical
adapted for the stage by Jane Bodie | based on the book by Eva de Jong-Duldig

Director Gary Abrahams

Venue: Chapel Off Chapel | 12 Little Chapel St, Prahran VIC
Dates: 3 – 20 May 2023
Tickets: $69.90 – $45.90
Bookings: chapeloffchapel.com.au

Glen Street Theatre 24 – 28 May
Riverside Theatres 31 May – 4 June
Eternity Playhouse 7 – 18 June

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