After Dresden, a new play based on the wartime diaries of Rev Ray Davey, founder of the Corrymeela Community, concluded on Saturday after a short run at the Belvoir Playhouse. Written by Philip Orr, the play sold out or nearly sold out each day on its Thursday-Saturday run and has been reviewed favourably by Alan in Belfast.
The play is set in 2004, at the 40th anniversary celebrations for the ‘Community of the Rock,’ the name given for Corrymeela in this fictionalized account. It is framed around the story of a former volunteer at the community, artist and teacher Siobhan O’Hara, whose brother was murdered during the Troubles.
Siobhan’s story, which includes disappointment and disillusionment when she and her mother attempt to reach out to the ‘other side’ after her brother’s death, is juxtaposed to Rev Tom Moore’s (the name given to Davey’s character) experiences as a Prisoner of War in Germany during the Second World War.
Moore/Davey was based in a POW camp in Hohnstein, about 15 miles away from Dresden. Here, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with Frau Klein, a woman whose son has died in the war and whose husband has recently been drafted – despite his age. Klein has excellent English, sings in the local church, and says that when she prays her prayers include those who are held in the POW camps.
In many ways Klein is the most fully-developed character in the play, as she reveals aspects of her life before and after the Nazis came to power and expresses anger about how even before the war the Hitler Youth attempted to indoctrinate her children.
In the post-show discussion after Friday’s performance, Dr Duncan Morrow from Ulster University remarked that this was a story ‘worthy of Hollywood’, as who would expect a padre from the British Army to have been wandering about behind enemy lines, drinking tea with an English-speaking German woman who showed so much humanity and compassion?
Apart from Davey’s unpublished wartime diaries, Frau Klein also makes an appearance in his book, Take Away this Hate, where his affection for her and the German civilians is abundantly clear. One wonders how these experiences made Davey question the boundaries between friend and enemy and strive to find common ground when he returned to Northern Ireland after the war.
Moore/Davey himself narrowly escapes being in Dresden during the bombing. He had been in the city visiting POWs, and asked for permission to stay overnight so that he could visit a gravely ill Scottish soldier in hospital the next day. But a German bureaucrat sent him back to Hohnstein, most probably sparing him his life.
The play depicts Moore as distraught during the bombing, while a British major enthusiastically cheers it on. Moore is thinking of his Scottish soldier and other POWs, and is horrified that the allies are destroying the city so close to what everyone seemed to know was the end of the war. In Take Away this Hate, Davey remarks how while previously the fire-storms brought by mass bombings had been an unintended consequence of the raids, now they were a deliberately strategy – meant to terrorize as much as to destroy military targets.
This raises questions about how the ‘good guys’, the guys on ‘our side,’ could engage in such behaviour, and what it might possibly mean when such things are done in ‘our name.’ This is captured in the play on Moore’s next visit to Frau Klein, when he confesses that he has been away so long because he is ashamed by what his ‘side’ has done to Dresden. Klein welcomes him simply with the words: ‘you are still my friend.’
The final scenes in the play – those between Moore and Frau Klein and then between Moore and Siobhan – are rather sombre. This is no play with a happy Hollywood ending; rather things are left ambiguous, as in real life.
Frau Klein, who Davey never heard from after the war, now fears and dreads the coming of the Red Army. She says:
Oh, I try to place my trust in God, but it does not make me confident. Not anymore. I used to sing, as you know. I used to play the organ in the church and I used to lead the choir each Sunday. I used to pray and I would always say that my prayer was my hope. I struggle now to do any of these things. I do not have the heart for it any more.
Siobhan gets ready to return to her work in London. Her relationship with her mother seems distant and her feelings about her brother remain very much unresolved.
I was also taking part in the post-show discussion, and remarked that the message I got from the play wasn’t necessarily that what Corrymeela and other groups like this tried to do had ‘failed.’ To me, it seemed that Siobhan was just at a certain place on her journey, and that this didn’t mean that failure was inevitable.
If we have learned one thing from Corrymeela’s work over the last half century, it is that facilitating encounters and building relationships takes time, and ‘results’ or changes may be years, even generations in coming, but sowing the seeds is still vital for transformation to take place.
I also was struck by how much prayer was woven throughout the play. Perhaps this should not be surprising, given Davey/Moore’s central role as a pastor and the Community of the Rock’s Christian ethos. Prayer in this play was ambiguous (who do we pray for with integrity?), and not always answered. But it was always linked with hope. Not hope that God would answer as we think is right, but that broken humanity would find a way to keep going. As Moore says to Siobhan in one of the final scenes:
But, sometimes we are not rewarded with the truth. And the friends I made in Germany became just a thought, a memory, a picture in my mind. But memory is a kind of prayer. And prayer is hope. When the Communists relaxed a little, I visited Dresden, a guest of the Lutheran church. They took me to the Opera House and the Frauen Kirche, though the church was still desolate. And I saw Martin Luther restored to his pedestal in the public square, preaching a silent sermon, under the watchful eye of the government. I was asked to visit a church in the suburbs and tell them about Ireland. They had heard about our little war. During my days in the city I asked several times – ‘Did you know Ina Klein? She was a dentist. She played the organ in her church in Hohnstein?’ But no-one seemed to know. And when I went walking, amongst those grey East German apartment blocks, I watched the trams glide past, and I hoped, somehow, to see a familiar face. But I never made the Dresden of my war-years come to life again.
In After Dresden, Philip Orr has brought to life again the story behind the origins of the Corrymeela community – one that has often been forgotten and is perhaps even unknown to many who are involved with Corrymeela today. The Belvoir Players production, directed by Trevor Gill, was sensitive and professional. The production deserves a wider airing and a longer run across these islands.
(Images by Brian O’Neill. Austin Branagh as Older Tom Moore and Gwen Scott as Siobhan O’Hara. Playwright Philip Orr at the post-show discussion).