Review: I Was A German, VAULT Festival

Highly inventive in its theatrical presentation, Clare Fraenkel’s deeply personal I Was A German is simply gorgeous at VAULT Festival

“I wouldn’t exist if my grandad hadn’t escaped”

Part TED Talk, part personal odyssey, Clare Fraenkel’s delightfully theatrical I Was A German manages an impressive double whammy in hitting hard in its exploration of what ‘home’ is in both the past and the present. That’s partly because of the appalling state of a world today that refuses to learn the lessons of the twentieth century but it is also the result of some clever conceptualisation, searchingly intelligent direction from Lowri James and a highly appealing central performance from Fraenkel.

In 1930s Berlin and stripped of his citizenship, Fraenkel’s grandfather Heinz escapes the encroaching Nazi forces and has to manage life in the UK as a German Jewish exile. In contemporary Britain, Fraenkel deals with Brexit by deciding to apply for the same German citizenship that was taken from Heinz. But as she explores the mythic history of a grandparent she sadly barely got to know in person (he conveniently wrote a book!), she uncovers an extraordinary story with lingering impact on her own.

I Was A German is far from dry historical biopic though. Blending inventive projections, shadow puppetry, a little light audience participation and original music from Arran Glass, Fraenkel and her trusty suitcase offers up something truly inventive. Playing on the cabaret of the era, witty songs draw us in but we’re never spared brutal honesty – the reality of having to drop every single thing you own in order to escape, the challenge of having your own country rob you of your statehood. It is unconscionable to think that both points can apply to 2023 as much as 1933.

Fraenkel’s show also digs deep to the heart of Brexit delusion, not with heavy-handed hammer blows but with the sharp stiletto thrust of personal testimony. A quiet but insistent cri de cœur that asks if the renowned tolerance of British society to which the likes of her grandfather fled is nothing but a mirage now. There’s tenderness too as she wrestles with how he might have dealt with her choices to get a German passport, leading to a beautiful reckoning with that legacy. A gorgeous show.

Running time: 60 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Karla Gowlett
I Was A German is booking at the VAULT Festival until 24th February

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