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Blonde Poison
Published on Thursday, 24 May 2012

5 stars

The Old Market (venue website)
23-24 May, 8:00pm-9:20pm
Reviewed by Alice Ash

 Suitable for age 15+ only.

Without question, Blonde Poison is the best piece of theatre I have seen at the Fringe this year, and quite possibly one of the most earth-shatteringly good performances I have ever seen from any actress. Elizabeth Counsell plays Stella Goldschlag, a Jewish collaborator during the war: a broken woman, less than human, betrayer of her own people.  And she tells her story with an astonishing believability.

As we stray into Stella’s dirtied consciousness, writer Gail Louw expertly presents a simple premise: that we are waiting for a journalist called Paul, who wants to hear Stella‘s story. Perhaps this journalist can save Stella – aged 71, killer and betrayer of three thousand  Jews, of people who were her own friends – maybe, possibly, he can help her atone for her great sins.

It’s a remarkably simplistic performance, which I found absolutely fitting to the theme of the play. There is no music in Blonde Poison, no lighting changes or really any scenery; in short, there is absolutely nothing to allow us, even for a second, to take comfort in the feeling that it’s only a play. And of course, it isn’t. This work isn’t produced for pure entertainment, but designed to probe a part of history that defies logic of humanity. Its bare-bones production is a perfect, unflinching and respectful way to examine such a horrific subject.

But this is not a simplistic story, and in Blonde Poison ‘evil’ is not a fundamental prophecy. Stella is one of the most three-dimensional characters I have ever seen on the stage, but writer Gail Louw does not apologise for her great evils.  We see an uninterrupted slice of Stella Goldschlag’s consciousness; she tells of her love for her mother and father, takes out a picture of her first sweetheart – ‘weren’t we beautiful,’ she sighs – and then goes on to mention the pleasure that she felt when she saw the flicker of terror the eyes of the Jews she handed over to the Nazis. It is a deeply disturbing vision of how a normal woman, a normal human, thrown into such horrific circumstances can find herself so close to inhuman.

But in Nazi Germany evil breeds evil, and there were moments in the piece where I found tears of empathy in my eyes. Stella describes hiding under the factory where she worked while her husband was led away by the Gestapo, and running past melting corpses after the prison she was held in was bombed. However, as soon as Stella’s actions seem to make sense in human kind of a way, Louw subverts the story. We are introduced to daughter Clara, who was stolen from Stella when four months old – and who at the age of ten, refuses to love her ‘murderess’ mother. It is through the strength and purity of this child that the audience can see the real tragedy of how far Stella’s soul has been broken.

Throughout the play we wait in anticipation for Paul to arrive. Back when “he was just a little boy, freezing in the snow,” Paul told Stella he loved her. We learn he is a saviour or a guardian, who – had Stella only accepted it – could have redeemed her. So now, at the end of her life, as the audience waits for Paul, we wonder: isn’t it too late? Can Stella ever really be freed?

This is an intensely intellectually stimulating piece of theatre, which forces the audience to ask questions about humanity – and indeed about themselves, and where they would have stood in Stella Goldschalg’s shoes. I cannot recommend Blonde Poison enough.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.