The eight-day tour of Andalusia in November 2017 was my fourth trip with Jewish Renaissance in the past six years. As in the previous three, I felt immediately at ease with the other members of the group who were friendly and whose outlook I shared.
Like all JR tours Andalusia was a combination of Jewish sites and historic places of interest. We were fortunate to be joined on our first two days in Seville by Moises Hassan, an eminent scholar of Jewish-Spanish history, who gave us a crash course. He told us about the place of the Jews, whose expulsion or murder by the Inquisition at the end of the 14th century ended Jewish presence in Spain. Today there are only 100 Jews in Seville and none at all in Cordoba, two significant pre-Inquisition Jewish communities.
Israel Zangwill, a ferociously intelligent, passionate champion of multiculturalism, escaped poverty in London’s East End thanks in part to his education at the Jews’ Free School, where he also subsequently taught for a time. He went on to become a writer, political thinker and activist. He was the first to use the phrase ‘the melting pot’ to describe what he also calls ‘God’s crucible’ – America – in this play, endorsed enthusiastically and vocally by then US president Theodore Roosevelt at its 1908 premiere in New York. Now Bitter Pill Theatre produces the first UK revival of The Melting Pot since 1938.
Mel Brooks’ The Producers was a legendarily successful translation from film to stage, but Young Frankenstein, his classic 1974 horror spoof film of Mary Shelley’s gothic tale, proved more problematic on Broadway in 2007. The sprightly 91-year-old Brooks personally oversaw this London revival, along with original director and choreographer Susan Stroman. This lower-budget production in a more intimate space makes the most of a relatively simple set of backdrops by designer Beowulf Boritt, showcasing Brooks’ inventive lyrics and music. The question is, can music hall innuendo survive not just political correctness, but more problematically, the recent outing of sexual exploitation? Laughing out loud through the dazzling – often smutty – lyrics Brooks wrote in his 80s (”Though your genitalia have been known to fail ya”) for me the answer is a giggling yes. And judging from audience laughter from both sexes, I’m not alone.
As Israel Zangwill’s play is revived for the first time in 80 years in the UK, by Bitter Pill Theatre at the Finborough Theatre, Judi Herman finds out about the visionary writer and activist. He coined this evocative description of inclusivity for the title of a play that influenced President Theodore Roosevelt at its premiere in 1908. Judi spoke to actor Peter Marinker about the play and his own inclusive background, complete with tales of rabbis and nuns! He plays Zangwill himself, as well as both the uncle and prospective father-in-law of Jewish composer David Quixano, escaped from a massacre in a pogrom to the melting pot that is New York City. First we hear an extract especially recorded for JR OutLoud by Marinker and actor Steffan Cenydd, who plays David, a man in love with a beautiful Russian Christian called Vera, much to the consternation of his Uncle Mendel (Marinker).
In the Wanamaker Playhouse’s candlelit space Jon Bausor’s clever set divulges sinister built-in drawers of files. Conspirators plotting treason discover the hard way that a mole is privy to their plans. Religious refugees fleeing to England in the wake of massacres on the continent find themselves unwelcome in isolationist Britain. Late 16th-century London feels a lot like a John le Carré thriller set right now. And indeed playwright Anders Lustgarten owes his title to le Carré, who wrote “espionage is the secret theatre of our society”.
In 1975 when Chagall was 88, he illustrated an edition of Shakespeare’s magical play The Tempest, perhaps feeling an affinity with Prospero the magician and prince, who gives up his ‘rough magic’ at the play’s end. The first UK exhibition of this rare and limited portfolio is currently on view at the Ben Uri gallery. Curator Hanna Scolnicov, Professor emerita of Tel Aviv University (left in above photo), talks to JR’s arts editor Judi Herman (above right) about how Chagall came to illustrate the edition and takes listeners on an audio tour of the exhibition, stopping at her favourite images.
A Farewell to Art: Chagall, Shakespeare and Prospero runs until Sunday 11 February. Ben Uri Gallery, NW8 0RH. 020 7604 3991. www.benuri.org.uk
Brecht’s meditation on war usually gets the loud, raucous in-yer-face treatment from directors. Hannah Chissick’s production of Tony Kushner’s urgent translation, which has an all too contemporary resonance as refugees flee wars across continents, is no exception. Yet Josie Lawrence’s Courage finds moments of quiet – albeit quiet desperation – which are much needed breathers on the gruelling journey through 30 years of war across a ravaged Europe. The desperation is for her children’s plight. She is always the conflicted mother as well as the often unscrupulous wheeler dealer – forced to pay a terrible price to survive, even thrive in the theatre of war. And though she is palpably grungy, Lawrence’s Courage is also younger and sexier than I have seen before, an attractive catch for the Chaplain and the Cook (convincing David Shelley and Ben Fox), who hitch lifts on her supply wagon across those battlefields.
Imagine yourself imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1942, facing the dilemma of whether or not to stand up to your Nazi persecutors. You are one of a company of Jewish actors confined there, determined to stage a play about the siege of Masada in 66BC. The siege ended in the mass suicide of the Jews defending the mountain fortress as the Roman besiegers stormed it, so it has long been a symbol of valiant Jewish resistance to persecution. A poem telling this story is said to have inspired the Warsaw uprising, and it’s upon this premise that Shuki Levy (music), David Goldsmith (lyrics) and Glenn Berenbeim (book) based this valiant musical attempt to bring the two uprisings together. Sasha Regan’s award-winning Union Theatre has a fine track record of small-scale musical revivals and it certainly succeeds better than the full-blown 2008 New London Theatre premiere.
If you want to introduce your child to the magic of live theatre, then the captivating combination of physical dance theatre and brilliantly imaginative staging with which Yasmin Vardimon and her company weave the story of Pinocchio should leave any theatregoer, new or experienced, eager for more.
Welcome to 1850 – a genuine welcome to political refugees from Europe, including 32-year-old Karl Marx. But is he in danger of outstaying his welcome as he goes on the razzle through Soho, funding his pub crawls by trying to pawn the family silver? His wife’s family that is, for Jenny von Westphalen is of aristocratic German stock, her relatives scandalised by her marriage to the penniless Jewish revolutionary. As young Marx himself puts it “at our wedding I was only invited to the reception”.