Dr Josef Mengele was one of a team off doctors working at Auschwitz in Nazi-controlled Germany during the Second World War. Supposedly responsible for the health and well-being of the inmates, his tasks included selecting those new arrivals who would be spared and those who would be sent to the gas chambers. He became known as the Angel of Death, partly for this and partly for his quasi-scientific experiments on those in his care, most notoriously any pairs of twins who had the misfortune to cross his path.
Inspired by the novel, Right To Live by Philip Wharam, the script for Mengele was written by actor Tim Marriott and the author. Mengele is washed up on a beach, saved from drowning by a mysterious stranger, Azra. She seems curiously determined to establish first Mengele’s identity and then to urge him to account for his actions. Initially drawn into a discussion of philosophy, politics and ethics, the conversation turns to Mengele’s beliefs in natural selection, racial supremacy and his quest to further the world’s understanding of science.
Marriott, who also plays Mengele, turns in a compelling performance. Intellectually charismatic, occasionally insidiously charming and ultimately, a fervent fascist lost in his own rage, Marriott’s Mengele is an alarmingly credible insight into rabid ideology gone wrong. Stephanie Rossi as the mysterious Azra has a tough job, given her character’s ambiguity, but stands firm with her questioning with grace and determination in the face of Mengele’s appalling beliefs.
The story that inspires this play is spine-chilling. Mengele’s cavalier abuse of his patients feels archaic enough to be a story from another era rather than a chain of events that played out in living memory. The play’s action is interspersed with film footage from Auschwitz, showing the unloading of people from the trains; the rows of wooden bunks in huts that stretched as far as the eye could see, the barbed wire that kept the inmates in and the rest of the world out, reminding the audience that this isn’t the creation of a modern-day crime novel.
The device around which the play is constructed – the mysterious stranger who may be a camp survivor, a figment of Mengele’s imagination, the judge he never faced in court – is curious enough to distance the audience from the horrors he recounts. We deduce she’s there to hold him to account, but the tension in this script is coming from the nightmarish history rather than this imagined report of his final moments. (Mengele managed to escape justice in Europe and lived out his remaining days in South America, dying of a heart attack on a beach in Brazil in 1979.)
Smokescreen Productions partnered with the Holocaust Educational Trust to share this important story. You can catch it on alternate days at the Blue Room, Assembly George Square. Irrespective of the dramatic efficacy of the script, there’s no question that this is a story that mustn’t be forgotten.