The Channel Islands were the only British territory occupied by German forces during World War Two. The UK government did not deem Jersey or Guernsey strategic in its fight against Hitler, and so quietly backed away, allowing the Nazis to settle there in June 1940. The thing was, the islands were of no particular use to Germany either, except for the fact it allowed the Nazis to say they’d captured British soil.
Moira Buffini’s Gabriel is set on Guernsey in 1943 in the depths of the German occupation and shows what life was like for the women left to survive there after their men had gone to war, and thousands of other islanders had been evacuated. Guernsey was cut off from the realities of war: the Germans banned any communication with the mainland and clamped down on attempts to distribute a newsletter among the islanders based on information gathered from the secret monitoring of BBC radio broadcasts. As far as the people of Guernsey knew, the war would never end.
Buffini’s play tries to say many things – about the roles and strengths of women during the occupation, about hope and fear, about the definition of evil – but the through-lines get muddled up and sometimes lost in Kate McGregor’s dry production. You get the feeling the script has more to say than the production is allowing, and that the actors are fighting hard to make their characters reach the point.
The audience is told about the familial relationships between Jeanne and her daughter Estelle and daughter-in-law Lily, but we rarely see examples of the bond between them. In many ways, the three women don’t seem particularly close at all, but we know there must be some connection between them as they are individually strong, forthright women who end up fighting their corners for one another. There’s also next to no depth to the character of Lake, who seems only to exist to bring vital information or tidy up.
Paul McGann and Venice van Someren
This all sounds quite negative and critical, but it’s simply because while the themes and messages of Buffini’s work are visible, they don’t have a heartbeat, and fail to make a keen connection. It’s a real shame when you can see a play’s point, but it’s too far away to focus on. The production feels a little vague, despite what are almost universally exemplary performances.
Without a doubt the best performance is from the mighty Paul McGann as German officer Major Von Pfunz (he has two christian names, but neither are relevant). Von Pfunz is by far the best-drawn and fleshed out character, the latest in an ever-growing line of Nazis in fiction depicted as human beings rather than monsters. He is a German before he is a Nazi (although Jeanne begs to differ) and does not necessarily embrace the more violent, sadistic and vindictive characteristics of his kind. McGann makes Von Pfunz funny, endearing, impish and reasonable, for the most part really quite decent, until you remember what uniform he’s wearing.
Von Pfunz is complex, but McGann makes the man sparkle. He is a poet, but the subject of his work is that of horror and torture and genocide. He writes lilting words of what he witnesses in the concentration camps, writing of rooms full of shorn hair from the heads of doomed Jews. The contradiction of having a Nazi write poetry is surprising enough, but when you realise that poetry is inspired by such depravity and evil, you wonder where the humanity in him truly lies. McGann is spine-tinglingly good – not evil, not kind, not violent but not nice. Just like real human beings.
Belinda Lang’s Jeanne is less layered, but again you get the feeling she could be. Lang gets across the character’s haughty contemptuousness with aplomb, and delivers some killer barbs, but fails to dig too far below the surface. Lang’s drunken version of Jeanne is merely the same woman, just a little louder. Jules Melvin is perfectly adequate as Lake, but is given very little to work with, although her very last line is one of the funniest in the play.
Sarah Schoenbeck and Venice Van Someren work well together as sisters-in-law brought together by the loss of Miles, Lily’s husband and Estelle’s brother. He’s gone off to war and there’s no clue as to whether he’ll ever come back. Schoenbeck gives Cockney Jew Lily a steely determination beneath a pleasant optimism, but Lily’s presence at the farmhouse provides the ultimate trigger for the play’s climax. Van Someren is bright and breezy, slightly otherworldly, as the young Estelle, who draws a Square of Power and creeps into the Nazis’ digs at night to haunt and steal from them.
Then there’s Gabriel, or at least that’s the name he’s given. A lost man found naked and unconscious on the beach, he is taken under the wing of the farmhouse women, a symbol of hope in their eyes and imaginations. Just who Gabriel really is is never fully answered (each audience member will have their own preference) – is he a fallen British airman? A stranded SS officer? An islander with a brain tumour? Or is he an angel sent from Heaven? He is all of these people and none of them, but perhaps more than any, he is an angel, whether celestial or earthbound. Not all angels are sent from above. Maybe we all have an angel inside us from time to time?
There’s some stirring, brooding music from Maria Haik Escudero and appropriately moody lighting by Will Evans. Carla Goodman’s set communicates the sparse living conditions on the island well, and its multi-level nature brings the necessary creation of distinct spaces, but when Gabriel begins to fit, or a character decides to run on or off set, the walls wobble terribly, breaking the illusion in an instant. A bit more solidity would go a long way, but then perhaps former Doctor Who Paul McGann is more used to wobbly sets than most!
Gabriel is an interesting reflection on life on Guernsey during German occupation, specifically what women had to do to survive. It’s a studied and enlightening portrayal of what happened to the oft-forgotten Channel Islands during this period in history, and asks what defines evil, truth and humanity when presented in the form of a man dressed like a demon but who acts so reasonably. The attraction of evil has always been its seductive qualities, its route to power and wealth, and to some extent that is what women like Jeanne see in Von Pfunz – a way to make life a little more bearable, to make the best of a bad situation. And if prostituting herself to protect those closest to her is what must be done, so be it. As with death, in war, it’s what becomes of those left behind that is the saddest story to tell.
Touring until May 20
Main image Belinda Lang and Paul McGann
Photography Robin Savage