When Melly Still first asked me to read German playwright Georg Kaiser‘s 1945 play The Raft of the Medusa, I couldn’t help but be struck by its bleakness. It is a play about survival, and human nature. But far from being about optimism, cooperation or triumph in adversity, it is about survival’s dark side: madness, paranoia, and the desperate need for control. The play examines how, under the pressure-cooker circumstances of a life and death situation, these instincts can cause us to turn on one another with lethal consequences.
The Raft of the Medusa was German playwright Georg Kaiser’s last play. Written in exile from Nazi Germany, it takes place on a lifeboat adrift in the Atlantic, filled with children after a passenger liner carrying British evacuees to Canada was torpedoed by German U-boats. Undiscovered for seven days, the thirteen children become obsessed with the idea that they are cursed, and that only some kind of macabre sacrifice will save them. It was Kaiser’s last play before he died and reflects his despair at seeing the civilised world he thought he knew tear itself apart.
It was shocking to discover that these events were supposedly based on a true story. My first port-of-call was to scour 1940s newspaper archives in the British Library in search of the original event – but strangely I could find no record of it. But in a way, it didn’t matter. Kaiser is also concerned with allegory, and with anatomising the psychological weaknesses in all human beings, which had so recently destroyed his home nation. My search did turn up plenty of triumphant tabloid reporting of Allied victories against the Germans – including the bombing of civilians. The play is a searing indictment of the adult world of which these children are a product.
This historical material was useful stimulus for a workshop week in 2013 with Bristol Old Vic Young Company, in which we deconstructed Kaiser’s original and built it back up again, adding more detail and personality to each of the characters than Kaiser had. (In the original, with the exception of Allan, Ann and Foxy, all the children simply have numbers rather than names). We also made two important further changes.
The first was to elide Allan and Ann’s culpability for the ending. In the original, Ann was the manipulative and malevolent force with Allan the innocent (though impotent) saviour. In our version, it is the nexus between the two of them which is to blame. (We also swapped which of them experiences the great howl of regret at the end).
The second big change was a steer from Bristol Old Vic’s Artistic Director Tom Morris, for which I remain grateful. Tom felt that the 1940s setting let a modern audience ‘off the hook’ – that the events in this context, though horrifying, could easily be written off as the baffling behaviour of a different age, when superstition was more powerful and people more easily-led. For Kaiser, there was nothing baffling about human beings turning on one another in the most brutal way. (Indeed, Kaiser had in turn taken his title from an 1819 painting by French Romantic painter Théodore Géricault, depicting the aftermath of another real-world naval wreck when the desperate crew resorted to cannibalism).
Any adaptation which is to remain true to Kaiser’s original intent would need to implicate its contemporary viewers as powerfully as its two historical predecessors.
And so it was that we alighted on a slightly timeless, though clearly modern, near-future dystopia, in which the children have grown up against a backdrop of a nameless war so long-lasting that none of them can remember anything else. That our version should be taking place as part of Bristol’s Green Capital year feels appropriate; if wars are fought primarily for resources, then the clear and present danger of climate change ought to galvanise us all.
In Melly Still’s and Bristol Old Vic Outreach’s stunning production, Life Raft does not make for easy viewing. But nor it is without hope. There are moments of kindness and selflessness; the fundamental decency which is childrens’ default mode is a strong bulwark against which the forces of hysteria must pit themselves for some time before they prevail.
Looking back on our process, I am comforted by the reminder that I found no evidence that the ‘real event’ which inspired this play ever actually happened. But the fact that we can imagine such an event in the theatre, our greatest arena for collective self-reflection, is our single best hope that it never will.
Photos by Jack Offord