Acclaimed Holocaust novel Caging Skies takes to the stage

by Elspeth Sandys / 10 August, 2017

Johannes and Elsa in Caging Skies: the characters exist in a “Pinteresque limbo”.

A wartime story that Taika Waititi wants to make into a movie heads to the stage.

Caging Skies, a play adapted by Desirée Gezentsvey from the novel of the same name by Christine Leunens, tells a story that could only take place in wartime. But its themes are universal: love versus loyalty, truth versus survival, the destructive power of obsession, and the price to be paid for lies and betrayal.

Published in 2008, Caging Skies was the second novel of Leunens, a New Zealand-Belgian writer living in Nelson. Her work has been translated into several languages as well as being short-listed for both the Prix du roman Fnac and the Prix Médicis in France.

The novel has also been in development for a few years as a possible feature film by Taika Waititi under the title Jojo Rabbit.

Playwright Desirée Gezentsvey.

The subject matter and not the book’s success was what drew Gezentsvey to adapt the story. It’s set in Vienna during World War II. Roswita is harbouring a young Jewish woman, Elsa. Also living in the house is Roswita’s mother and her son, Johannes, a zealous young Nazi recovering from war wounds, neither of whom knows of Elsa’s existence. The war is both distant – Germany is close to defeat – and present in the daily struggle to find food, to escape Allied bombs and, in Roswita’s case, to protect Elsa and the wounded Johannes.

As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, playwright and screenwriter Gezentsvey felt a personal connection to the story and Leunens agreed to her ideas for a stage adaptation. ‘‘The novel is mine, the play is yours,” Leunens told her.

Gezentsvey says her father, who survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, brought her up to see all people as human. ‘‘He raised us with no hatred.” It was this lack of hate that drew her to Caging Skies. The Jew is the victim, but so too is the Nazi.

Novelist Christine Leunens. Photo/Tanguy de Montesson

“Thank God I was born Jewish,” Elsa says to Johannes towards the end of the play. “Had I not been a Jew, I would have been you.”

The script differs from the novel in its chronology – in the novel the story is told by Johannes, looking back at events – but not in its focus on the toxic effect of lies and the corrosive nature of obsession.

The play’s director, Andrew Foster, says he was intrigued by Gezentsvey’s approach. “What fascinated me about the play was the way in which Desirée has used the vernacular of modernist and existential theatre so that the ‘reality’ that is constructed has very little connection with the reality outside the house.

“It may be 1944, but the characters, whom we only ever see inside the house, exist in a Pinteresque limbo … I was drawn to the complexity of the relationship between Johannes and Elsa, to the mystery of it. Who’s in control? Is Elsa a victim, or is it she who is doing the controlling?”

Caging Skies, Circa Theatre, Wellington, August 11-September 9.

This article was first published in the August 12, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Answering the tough questions on resettling refugees in New Zealand
84636 2017-12-18 00:00:00Z Social issues

Answering the tough questions on resettling refuge…

by Rachel O’Connor

1,000 former refugees will enjoy their first Kiwi Christmas this year. Half will be kids, oblivious to the resettlement debate that rages around them.

Read more
Worn-out mumps vaccine can leave people at risk
85083 2017-12-18 00:00:00Z Health

Worn-out mumps vaccine can leave people at risk

by Ruth Nichol

Today the All Blacks, tomorrow the rest of us, as worn-out mumps jabs leave people vulnerable.

Read more
Pukeko pests - and what to do with them
84324 2017-12-18 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Pukeko pests - and what to do with them

by Rebecca Hayter

Rebecca Hayter finds it takes a lot of smarts to outsmart a pukeko.

Read more
2017: A year of hard truths
84210 2017-12-17 00:00:00Z Currently

2017: A year of hard truths

by Graham Adams

Our national mantra of “She’ll be right” looks to have backfired. Graham Adams reflects on 2017.

Read more
Are salt-cured and pickled meats bad for your health?
84970 2017-12-17 00:00:00Z Health

Are salt-cured and pickled meats bad for your heal…

by Jennifer Bowden

Processed foods, such as ham, bacon and sausages, are bad news for our health, but what about salt-cured or pickled meat?

Read more
Hostage tells: How I outfoxed killer Antonie Dixon
83412 2017-12-16 00:00:00Z Crime

Hostage tells: How I outfoxed killer Antonie Dixon…

by Gareth Eyres

Ian Miller was held hostage in his Auckland home by meth-fuelled, gun-wielding killer Antonie Dixon. He'd never told his story. Until now.

Read more
The epilogue that sheds light on Antonie Dixon's dark deeds
83430 2017-12-16 00:00:00Z Crime

The epilogue that sheds light on Antonie Dixon's d…

by Gareth Eyres

How have those affected by Antonie Dixon's night of carnage fared nearly 15 years later?

Read more
Nokia and Motorola phones are making a comeback
84440 2017-12-16 00:00:00Z Technology

Nokia and Motorola phones are making a comeback

by Peter Griffin

It's been a long time since Nokia and Motorola ruled, but they're back with new mid-market smart phones.

Read more