Two key aspects of my life as a child of Jewish Holocaust survivors come together on stage in a delightful drama being performed at Hampstead’s 60-seater Pentameters Theatre, above The Horseshoe pub on Heath Street. (Playing every night at 8pm, except Mondays, from now till November 13, and on Sunday afternoons at 5pm.
Firstly, I grew up among World War 2 refugees with thick continental European accents, each of whom had mercifully managed to escape Hitler’s genocidal ambitions, each with a compelling story to tell. And yet, despite the horrors of the Holocaust always remaining a shadow in the background of my youth, I progressively came to appreciate God as “a very present help in trouble”, to whom prayer for guidance is reasonable and can prove practical.
These two aspects of what it means to be human, intertwine in Lilia, a play about a fondly remembered grandmother as told by her granddaughter Libby. Lilia is that rare kind of a play of which one can say at the end that the “whole of the theatre was suffused with love”. That, at least, is precisely how Léonie Scott-Matthews, Pentameters founder with some 42 years experience as its proprietor, described her own feelings when she first saw Lilia performed.
There is no indication that any of the audience left the theatre on Friday night questioning that description. On the contrary, following two curtain calls sole performer Libby Skala re-emerged for a Q&A session about the play and its main character – her real-life grandmother – and not a single person left until the very last question had been answered.
Lilia is a labour of love about Lilia Skala, a loving labourer in the world of theatre, film and TV, who achieved an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in a film that gained Sidney Poitier the first-ever award for an African-American: Lilies of the Field. But she reached that pinnacle of her career the hard way. She had to escape Hitler’s Germany to rejoin her Jewish husband, who had managed to flee ahead of her to New York. And, like many refugees, Lilia left behind a good life with a great career – she was a leading lady in Max Reinhardt‘s renowned stage troupe in pre-war Austria – to take up a life of menial labour in her adopted homeland.
The fact that there is an upward career trajectory between factory worker and Oscar nominee gives shape to the story being told through Lilia’s memory-monologues and through Lilia and Libby’s grandmother/granddaughter dialogues. Libby Skala’s one-person performance transitions seamlessly between her younger self and her grandmother’s self (at all ages!). And interwoven into the dramatisation of Lilia’s strong personality as an individual, and her even stronger commitment to the discipline required to be a good artist, is a golden thread of moments of praying to God to feel a trust in goodness – a trust which is rewarded in significant ways.
While Lilia’s war escape and refugee experience isn’t identical to that of the Jews who survived the Shoah – at one point the play reveals that she was a Christian Scientist – the similarities and spirituality that are there have captured the imagination of Jewish audiences in the UK. It has previously received enthusiastic responses at the Leeds Jewish International Performing Arts Festival and the Manchester Jewish Museum.
Perhaps that is because anyone can identify with the Lilia we see, who is not presented as a perfect grandmother nor as a perfect person of faith. She is, though, a genuinely engaged and loving grandmother who clearly has a profound impact on her grandchild’s life. And she is a sincere spiritual seeker whose love of God touched her life in a multitude of ways, and yet left her still wanting to know more about the nature of God as the final curtain came down on her career and her life.
At one point in the play, Lilia makes clear to her granddaughter – aspiring to follow in her thespian footsteps – that it is not enough to know and recite the words of Shakespeare, you have to understand and expressively communicate the thoughts behind them.
This is what Libby Skala achieves in this one-person presentation of Lilia’s life and character. She grasps and conveys something of the spiritual strength that empowered her grandmother to stand up for her own unique place in life during a difficult era, and to accomplish the good for which she is remembered.
And here is a remarkable interview with a 106-year old Holocaust survivor living in North London, which Libby has shared via her Facebook page.