The Enduring Resonance of A Time to Speak
Actress Joan McCready on continuing to deliver the message of Helen Lewis's Holocaust memoir, not just for her 'but for all victims and survivors'
The 30th Summer School programme is, as usual, an eclectic, wide ranging collection of readings, talks, live performance, masterclasses and panel discussions involving writers, academics, actors, directors and literary and social commentators. There are two theatre events: Kabosh’s highly praised production of Laurence McKeown’s astute, provocative Green and Blue, which incorporates verbatim testimonies from members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and An Garda Siochána, who patrolled the Irish border during the Troubles; and Sam and Joan McCready’s long-running adaptation of Helen Lewis’s memoir A Time to Speak.
Lewis declared herself constantly astonished that what she began writing by hand in a school exercise book, for family consumption only, should have gone on to be translated into many languages and to have attracted praise, respect and reverence the world over. She had been encouraged to publish the memoir by her friend, the distinguished poet Michael Longley, who famously wrote in his Irish Times review of the book, 'The world needs testimonies like Helen Lewis’s - a book of utmost distinction.'
'On a very basic level, I don’t look or sound anything like Helen,' says McCready, speaking from the United States, as she prepares for her performance at the Hewitt Summer School on July 27. 'But we decided early on that there would never be any attempt for me to ‘become’ Helen. My task, which I take extremely seriously, is to offer this amazing piece of writing and deliver its message in all its humanity and goodness. When Sam started working on the adaptation, he was faced with the usual questions of what to take out and what to leave in. While Helen was almost invariably referred to as 'Holocaust survivor Helen Lewis’, she didn’t define herself that way. Beyond all else, she was a dancer. The line in the book that finally captured Sam’s attention was '… dance has saved my life'. That became the central theme of the piece.'
'Not everyone who comes has read the book but, more often than not, the performance sends them away in search of the book. For instance, when we did it in our local village in Maryland, people went home, ordered the book on Amazon, got it next day and read it in one go. They told us that they couldn't put it down. That’s what we hear, time after time. This coolly observed, beautifully crafted account – written by someone, let’s not forget, whose first language was not English - never fails to completely absorb and engage the reader.
McCready says that, as the years pass and the number of performances grows, the piece has taken on a life of its own, unleashing a range of emotions, sometimes from unexpected quarters.
Sam and Joan McCready
'It’s amazing how it still carries such resonance and relevance. What strikes me time and time again is the humanity, the compassion and the tightly controlled anger in the writing. She describes people who did good in those terrible places. In spite of the dreadful things she suffered, she can still find goodness in those people. Every time I perform, I feel Helen’s incredible spirit shining through. As time goes by I feel empowered to tell the story with a little more of that righteous anger that, in its turn, re-emphasises the discovery of tremendous forgiveness. I can honestly say that Helen’s work has taught me the true value of forgiveness.'
'People often want to talk about our friendship and to ask us questions, but they also want to tell us about their own encounters with Helen,' says Joan. 'They all remember the one precious time when they spoke to her or were maybe in the audience when she gave a talk to schools or church groups or community gatherings. She had such personal magnetism that you never forgot being in her presence, even if was only once. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine that some day she would be a renowned writer or memoirist, that she would be invited to speak in public about her experiences but, equally, she felt it was very important that she did so. She used to say, 'Always be on your guard. Don’t think it can’t happen again. It can. It is.'
Exhibition of photographs displaying victims' arm tattoos at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC
'I am not just telling this story for Helen but for all victims and survivors,' she says. 'One of my most enduring memories is of performing in Exeter, in the third oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in the UK. I felt humbled standing up at the front of that building, surrounded by a congregation of Jewish people. They listened intently to every word. It was daunting, yes, but I took strength and inspiration from their presence. Afterwards, they all said ‘please keep telling our story, no matter how often, keep telling it.'
A Time to Speak is at the Market Place Theatre, Armagh on Thursday July 27 at 8.30pm. For tickets go to www.marketplacearmagh.ticketsolve.com/shows/873574599. See what other events are taking place as part of the John Hewitt Summer School at www.johnhewittsociety.org/john-hewitt-summer-school-2017.