In Broken Glass Arthur Miller addresses the fate of Jews in Nazi Germany through the reactions of one New York Jewish family to the news of Kristallnacht in November 1938. Haunted by graphic news images coming out of Germany, Sylvia Gellburg takes to her bed, apparently paralysed, while her husband Phillip struggles to assimilate and ignore undercurrents of antisemitism he encounters as the only Jew working at a real estate company. Dr Harry Hyman is called to diagnose Sylvia’s affliction and the Gellburgs’ uneasy relationship fractures.
It’s 25 years since Diane Samuels’ powerful drama first moved audiences, with something that was new to many. Since then the story of the Kindertransport children has entered public consciousness, thanks to high-profile real-life stories as well as a succession of productions of Samuels’ play. This anniversary production is especially timely, coinciding with the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), when the Nazis incited violence against Jews across Germany – a chilling curtain-raiser to the Holocaust. It also has new urgency, chiming with the stories of families fleeing persecution across the world, desperately seeking refuge, facing separation.
In his timely play, Jeff Page asks when pro-Palestinian criticism of Israel crosses the line to become antisemitism. Celebrated poet Bev seems to have crossed that line, judging from the Twitter storm aroused by Checkpoint Chana, a poem in her latest collection. Chana is the name Bev gives the young woman border-guard at a Hebron checkpoint, whom she observes searching a Palestinian woman’s bag, comparing her to a Nazi searching her grandmother: “The woman presents / she searches her bag / like a Nazi did to her bubbe”.
Had he not been killed by a car bomb in 1972, aged just 36, Palestinian intellectual and activist Ghassan Kanafani would have been an octogenarian. What would the highly-respected writer of the novella, Returning to Haifa, have made of the current situation and ongoing battles for the patch of the Middle East from which he, like the characters in his story, was exiled in 1948?
Celebrated Lithuanian director Rimas Tuminas grew up alongside Jewish compatriots and his familiarity with Jewish life and custom informs this glorious evocation. Smile Upon Us, Lord, which Tuminas adapted for the stage from two novels by fellow Lithuanian and celebrated writer Grigory Kanovich, tells of a world lost forever in the Holocaust. Indeed a fatalism by turns melancholy and filled with the laughter of self-mocking recognition imbues this picaresque tale of three men on a mission to the big city, leaving behind the familiarity of the shtetl to meet new travelling companions and adventures along the way.
As Watford Palace Theatre gets set to revive Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass, JR’s arts editor Judi Herman spoke to the team behind the production. The powerful play details the reactions of a New York Jewish family to the news of Kristallnacht coming out of Germany in November 1938 – a horrific night that sees its 80th anniversary this year. Listen in as Charlotte Emerson and Michael Matus, who play the couple at the heart of the play, read an extract recorded especially for JR OutLoud. Plus hear from the production’s director, Richard Beecham, and actor Clara Francis, who tells the moving story of how her great-grandparents were caught up in the violence of Kristallnacht.
Photo by Richard Lakos
Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass runs Thursday 1 – Saturday 24 March. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (various days, check website for details). £15-£24.50. Watford Palace Theatre, WD17 1JZ. https://watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk
Julius Caesar is perhaps Shakespeare’s most topical play right now. Nick Hytner’s modern-dress production for The Bridge Theatre, follows the RSC’s 2017/18 Roman-dress version. A populist leader adored by the populace overreaches himself to the disgust and horror of the ruling elite, who prove fatally to lack the common touch. The mob is swayed back and forth by conflicting oratory, but the people’s choice has to be the one who offers the most tangible rewards – money and quality of life. Brutus, Cassius and their equally patrician co-conspirators step up, but are forced to step aside when Caesar’s protégé Mark Antony expertly plays on the emotions of the ‘ordinary’ Romans mobbing the funeral of their assassinated ‘beloved leader’.
The stand-out feature of Hytner’s vision is to have some hundreds of audience members promenading in the pit, cleared of seating and filled by designer Bunny Christie’s extraordinarily versatile set. His platforms rise and fall to transport the audience to Ancient Rome, from Senate House to Forum, Brutus’s palatial home to battlefield. Hytner’s masterstroke is to cast the promenaders as the Roman mob, ruthlessly controlled by uniformed apparatchiks (perfectly-drilled theatre staff who ensure the promenaders get out of the way of fast-moving scenery).
Five years after Sheldon Harnick and the late Jerry Bock struck gold with Fiddler on the Roof, they turned to Mayer Rothschild. Specifically the story of how he and his five sons transmuted the poverty of the ghetto into a golden future. The streamlined version of that show, premiered off-Broadway in 2015, arrives in London with American leads Robert Cuccioli and Glory Crampton as paterfamilias Mayer Rothschild and his wife and helpmeet Gutele, respectively, plus original director Jeffrey B Moss.
Is it an accolade if your name becomes an adjective to describe your work as playwright? Brechtian is (perhaps lazy) shorthand for alienation and Pinteresque for menacing. Unsettling menace may permeate the sea air in the unnamed resort where Meg runs a shabby boarding house and husband Petey is a deckchair attendant, but Harold Pinter brings rather more to this party. He is laugh-out-loud funny for a start. His ear for the vagaries of daily conversation, the transactions and the power play, is acute; the heightened rhythms and repeats of his characters’ exchanges and what they reveal of their hopes, fears and relationships – and the pauses (carefully written into the script) – are entirely his own.
“Tears are the juice of our souls”, declares Blueberry the Clown, demonstrating how squeezing a blueberry produces a tear-like drop. He’s born Isaac Solomon Loew, son of a proud, observant Prussian-Jewish immigrant to America’s Deep South. His mother tells him that in Hebrew his name means ‘he who laughs’. It seems it’s this nominative determinism that begins his journey towards becoming a whiteface Pierrot, first in the circus then in vaudeville on Broadway. It’s 1932 and the Depression is kicking in when he meets us, his audience, in his dressing room, after what he confides will be his last ever show. Perhaps Blueberry himself has taken one too many kicks, for you sense the tension behind his rueful smile early on. Still, things are upbeat as he starts to share his life story – and his basket of blueberries – with his public.