Once only available to New York audiences, the critically- acclaimed play The Soap Myth was streamed to London last week, thanks to a company that makes theatre available online, writes Sophie Eastaugh.
Written by Jeff Cohen and directed by Arnold Mittelman, the play explores the notion that Nazis manufactured soap from the fat of their Jewish victims.
Until now, the National Jewish Theatre production was only available to see in the US, but the play enjoyed its UK premiere at the Jewish Museum in Camden last Thursday. The screening was made possible by the UK-based firm Digital Theatre, which films live performances and makes them available to online audiences for a fraction of a typical theatre ticket.
The play revolves around a young investigative reporter (Andi Potamkin) who is researching the desperate claims of Milton Saltzman (Greg Mullavey), a passionate Holocaust survivor who insists on the truth behind the gruesome story.
To Saltzman’s immeasurable frustration, two historians (played by Donald Corren and Dee Pelletier) refuse to endorse his reports, reasoning that there is insufficient hard evidence to support his claim. Struggling between journalistic integrity and her empathy with Saltzman, the young reporter finds herself caught between differing versions of the truth.
Told through the highly emotional accounts of a small but superbly talented cast, the play raises the compelling question of who has the authority to write and record history — those people who have lived it and remember it, or those who study and protect it.
The play is inspired by the real story of Holocaust survivor Morris Spitzer, who insisted that the Nazis produced soap from human corpses. Rumours abounded during the Second World War and several people testified to having witnessed it during the Nuremberg trials. While there is no conclusive evidence that human soap was mass-produced by the Nazis, there is evidence to suggest this happened on a small scale in Poland.
Watching the play on screen rather than on the stage did not make the drama any less absorbing, although there was less sense of occasion, with no velvet curtains or actors to applaud. But the quality of The Soap Myth’s filming, with lots of close-up shots and minimal camera movement, beautifully transmitted the simple staging and raw emotion of the play.
Olivier award-winning actor Henry Goodman, who attended the screening, said afterwards: “It’s hugely compelling, very well-written and beautifully performed – the actors are magnificent. By being in that live experience, which this filming captures, it humanises us and honours the experience of these terrible events.”
In making such shows as The Soap Myth available to a wider audience, Digital Theatre says it hopes to encourage more people to set foot inside a real auditorium. According to their figures, 70 percent of those who viewed the digital performances said they were more likely to attend a real show.
Robert Delamere, CEO and co-founder of Digital Theatre, added that there was an educational value in bringing such shows as The Soap Myth to a larger audience. “We live in a world with lots of social contact, but not always much connection. Theatre can create that empathy that takes down a barrier to the understanding of another cultural group.
“I would love to keep creating work around Jewish issues, so that there’s a dialogue between different pieces on the site.”
The Soap Myth has already been downloaded from countries as far flung as Australia, Hong Kong and Thailand, and at only £2.99 to rent and £6.99 to buy, it’s a price many can afford.
With school and community centre subscriptions in 31 countries, Digital Theatre’s productions are also available to more than 1.7 million students.
Benji Dotan from Voices of the Holocaust, a specialist company dedicated to Holocaust theatre and education, certainly sees the value of Digital Theatre in aiding Holocaust education around the world.
“This makes Jewish theatre more accessible to wider audiences. As soon as they hear the term ‘Holocaust’, lots of people run away, but if people can see things in the comfort of their own home, they are more likely to engage with it.”
• The Soap Myth is now available to watch online at digitaltheatre.com from £2.99