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.

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