By Darby Turnbull
Niusia, takes its name from creator and performer Beth Paterson’s indomitable grandmother who she knew in the final decade and a half of her life as a bitter, vitriolic crank, who whilst loving and enigmatic, had a pointed mean streak. Through 60 minutes of dynamic, crisp and heartfelt story telling we’re given a portrait of a hardened survivor of Auschwitz concentration camp, a shrewd business woman, dynamic storyteller, fabulous hostess and general bad arse. It’s simultaneously a tribute to the resolve and survival of a complicated woman and Paterson’s own exploration into her own cultural history, Jewish heritage and place within her family and broader historical context. Equally as vital is the testimony of her own mother Suzie, a renowned psychologist, here represented through recorded interviews.
Beth Paterson clearly shares Niusia’s robust, infectious charm, infusing the space with the warm glow of a gifted raconteur. Her embodiment of Niusia is bold and warm, reverent to the complex facets of her personality; the vivacious party hostess, mischievous anecdotist; the gleam Paterson gets in her eye when she’s about to relive one of her grandmother’s famous stories is delightful but also real insight into the depths of her anger. Niusia is the kind of woman we’d all love to meet, just not on the receiving end of one of her irascible tirades. It’s a testament to Paterson skill as a storyteller and strength of character that she honors Niusia’s sharper edges whilst also holding space for the pain they caused both her and her mother.
Directed with compassionate synergy by Kathryn Yates, Niusia is one of the finest solo, biographical shows I’ve ever seen and I spent most of the performance awed by the density of the piece and how organically the text and performance is weaved. Paterson’s winning combination of humility and deep sense of creative responsibility is refreshing and has the audience completely on side during her journey of discovery. She’s very transparent about how much she’s learned and learning about Judaism and the history not only of the Holocaust and its effects across generations and her burgeoning relationship with other Jewish people; it’s her buoyant curiosity that contributes to such an irresistible coming of age tale.
Yates’ staging cleverly accentuates Paterson’s skill as a performer whilst supporting the magnitude of her goal. The production clearly recognises the challenges not just of solo performance but also one that requires this level of introspection and vulnerability.
It’s work I could see taking on many different forms and mediums with the skill and insight that the production team possess, whether it’s a tour, documentary, return seasons I can see an audience following them based on how poignantly they tap into the very humane feelings about how we incorporate our family and cultures legacies into the identities of a new generation.
The creative team work do simple, evocative work within the Motley Bauhaus Blackbox theatre which rotates several performances an evening over the festival. Samantha Hastings set creates a tactile playground out of Paterson’s personal library, the majority if not all of which the Gestapo (and indeed many political figures today) would have seen publicly burned, in addition to some well chosen furniture that immediately evoke memories of inner suburban grandparents homes. Sidney Younger’s lighting design matches the cerebral explorations of the text with a concise series of palettes showing the shifts in mood, time and memory. Likewise Jack Burmeister’s sound design makes many intelligent and powerful choices, specifically the inclusion of the sounds of the city, and people; heightening where these individuals sit within a social milieu and the jazz standards that connected Beth and Niusia, we even get some brief glimpses into Beth’s gorgeous singing voice, the production shows admirable restraint in not incorporating it more, though I can’t wait for the opportunity to hear Paterson really let loose vocally.
From my perspective, Niusia was and is a sublime introduction to the 2023 Melbourne Fringe Festival. Given the re emboldening of rampant and open anti Semitism and Nazi ideology and imagery Niusia is an essential viewing experience as a reminder of the personal cost of genocide and a balm for those who need reminding of the possibility for joy, endurance and personal transcendence.
Image: Ece Mustafoff