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'

It’s difficult to believe that 30 years have passed since the death of the influential Belfast poet, art historian and political activist John Hewitt and the establishment of the annual Summer School set up in his memory. From the onset, the stated mission of the John Hewitt Society, which organises the Summer School, has been to 'provide opportunities for individuals across Northern Ireland to explore issues of difference and identity through literature and creative writing.’ That mission is inspired by Hewitt’s own ethos, using literature and the arts as a conduit for the examination of prejudice, exclusivist concepts of identity, and sectarian conflict. Now, more than ever, those ideals carry an urgency and an imperative for the turbulent, divisive times in which we are living.

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.

There are few pieces of literature that chime more resonantly with Hewitt’s philosophy than Lewis’s understated, deeply humanitarian first-hand account of the 20th century Nazi nightmare. Written initially in response to questions about her past life from her two sons, her reminiscences begin in her cultured, privileged upbringing in the German-speaking Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia, then move to Prague and her professional studies to become a dancer, before plunging readers into the heart of darkness that was the Holocaust.

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.'

In 2009, shortly before Lewis’s death, Maryland-based director/actor husband and wife Sam and Joan McCready premiered a dramatisation of A Time to Speak. It takes the form of an extended monologue, in which the words of the writer are given voice by Joan, adapted and directed by Sam. On many levels, this was a bold undertaking, which had been several years in the making. A deep friendship had been forged between the three when they were part of the circle of creative individuals who constituted the early life of the Lyric Theatre. On a number of occasions they spoke with Lewis about the idea of a dramatisation and they recall that every conversation ended in the same way – she would give her permission only if the central character was played by Joan McCready. The ultimate challenge was to determine whether it was possible to translate these piercingly intense personal memories into a credible piece of drama.

'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.'

Helen Lewis

In the eight years since its premiere in the Elmwood Hall in Belfast and its subsequent place of honour as the first item on the soft opening programme of the newly rebuilt Lyric, the McCready duo have taken the performance to a huge number of venues on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. While every individual audience member’s response is different, there is also a common experience, as Joan explains:

'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.

'Helen’s son Robin sent a copy to the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, who was himself a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. He wrote back to say that he never thought he would want to read another word about the Holocaust but, having just finished reading Robin's mother’s book, he was in tears.'

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.

'When we were doing a run at the Lyric a few months ago, many people were coming out in tears. We’re used to that now. Such is the power of Helen’s writing. But it was mostly the men in the audience, who were upset by it, which I found very interesting. Lots of people have been to see it again and again and young people are now being caught up in it too, which is something we love to see – and would certainly have pleased Helen. But our audiences in Northern Ireland go far beyond just Helen’s faithful friends and old groupies from the Lyric. As new audiences appear, so the piece evolves and develops, almost organically. Sam tells me that each time I do it, it deepens and grows, which, for an actor, is obviously very pleasing to hear.

Sam and Joan.web

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.'

While Sam and Joan constantly draw inspiration from their long friendship with the writer, both are frequently struck by the deep impression she left on those who only met her fleetingly.

'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.'

Joan says that she could not have contemplated embarking on the project unless she had first walked in Lewis’s footsteps. So she and Sam retraced her steps from her home town of Trutnov to the streets of Prague and Krakow, to the camps of Teresienstadt (Terezin) and Auschwitz. They even accompanied her on an emotional visit to the Holocaust Memorial in Washington DC, where she spotted a grainy photograph of a woman whose tattooed arm was a sign that they had been on the same transport. McCready recounts marvelling at the magnificence of the great European cities where Lewis grew up while shivering at the thought of people invading those beautiful buildings and family homes, bent on death and destruction.

Holocaust Museum Washington

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.'

'As always, we are looking forward very much to coming home in a few weeks time. We will be bringing two shows. Sam has a new solo piece called No Surrender about the writer Robert Harbinson, which he will be performing at the Eastside Arts Festival on 3 and 4 August. And it will be lovely for me to be back on stage in the Market Place Theatre in Armagh. There is a very nice synchronicity about performing A Time to Speak at the end of Helen’s centenary year during the 30th John Hewitt Summer School. But for us, it is always a special day when we get to celebrate Helen and her extraordinary life.'

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.