Olga Benario was a German-Jewish communist. Imprisoned in Brazil and Germany in the 1930s, her story is one of defiance and affliction. German playwright Dea Loher concentrates Benario’s plight on her time in prison, focusing on her crumbling resolve and sense of self. First performed in 1992, Speaking in Tongues have brought the bristling Olga’s Room to the Arcola for its UK premiere.

The play opens with Benario, (played by Bethan Clark) desperately etching her journey and “album of memories” onto the ground of her cell with a piece of chalk. Switching to a cell in Brazil, her seventeen year old cellmate Genny (Sheena May), hankers after her story with child-like eagerness. A worn, pregnant Olga indulges her with the reality of life on the run with Luis Prestes, a Brazilian communist and father of her child. Benario goes on to be subjected to an interrogation by a sinister, waistcoat clad Filinto Muller (Pete Collis), an officer who appears to have links to the Gestapo. Another female, Ana Libre (Ceridwen Smith), enters this dismal setting, accusing Benario of being a traitor. Confined to their cell, the three women are exposed only to their inner turmoil and Muller’s psychological and physical torture.

Benario manages to momentarily snatch power from her interrogator; exposing his weakness and forcing him into a frenetic state. This psychological combat, in which they extract each others’ inner demons with clear, unyielding precision, results in cutting moments of tension. Time is an elusive element of the play however, and there’s ambiguity as to whether the interrogation scenes with Muller actually occurred, or merely became part of Benario’s fantasy, but it’s her most defiant moment. Poor placement of the interval means the second act is a hurried conclusion to Benario’s journey.

Loher’s Benario is conflicted; pinned between fear and determination and questioning her sense of self. Unfortunately Bethan Clark’s delivery fluctuates and isn’t always affecting. Whilst the commanding, if overbearing, Pete Collis occasionally steamrolls into his role as interrogator.

[Matt Sykes-Hooban’s] grim set, comprised of a bunk bed, sectioned off by a wire fence, is stirred by [James Smith’s] lighting.

Olga’s Room is a dreary, unsettling piece piqued by harrowing moments, which are unfortunately doused by uneven performances.

Olga’s Room, Arcola Theatre

(Originally published by What’s on Stage, Jan ’13)

by Amardeep Sohi