Review: Julius Caesar ★★★★ – Nicholas Hytner’s timely full-blooded production

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).

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Review: Rothschild and Sons ★★★ – Feisty musical account of the founding of a golden dynasty

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.

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Review: The Birthday Party ★★★★ – Pitch-perfect Pinter in unnerving seaside fun at 60

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.

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Review: Cry, Blueberry ★★★★ – Moving tears of a Jewish Clown

“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.

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Review: East ★★★★ – Berkoff’s dark exuberant hymn to London’s East End has lost none of its transgressive power

East first shocked and delighted audiences in 1975 and in Jessica Lazar’s production for Atticist Theatre it has lost none of its power. Her five actors relish Berkoff’s marriage of precisely choreographed physical theatre and heightened language to make it their own. He folds witty takes on Shakespeare – “he doth bestride Commercial Road like a Colossus” – into heroically scurrilous prose and verse, using Cockney rhyming slang and evoking place names and bus routes to conjure the East End of his youth. It’s a bleak and dangerous manor of dashed hopes, hard graft, violent machismo, sexism and sexual rivalry. Yet it’s a paean to generations who lived there and live there still, fascists and Jews, immigrants and those who resent them.

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Review: Another year, another phenomenal Limmud Festival

© Limmud

Going to Limmud Festival is always a source of wonderment: 2,500 delegates of all ages – from under one year old to over 90 – met at Pendigo Lake in Birmingham for the third year. Hundreds of sessions were given by an international cast of presenters, covering all aspects of Jewishness, from torah texts to issues of being Jewish in the fluid world we now inhabit. There were lots of opportunities to join in, whether in Mizrachi dancing or – new to this year –  peopling the everyday story of country folk that is The Archers with Jewish characters. There was a great deal of fun with Eddie Grundy!

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JR Tours: Janet Abrams reports from a thought-provoking trip to Ethiopia

Jewish kids at the After School Club founded/run by Meketa, the British charity led by Sybil Sheridan and Hila Bram, in Gondar.

Being in Ethiopia, after dreaming of visiting the country for years, was wonderful. Being there in the company of 20 loquacious Londoners of various Jewish persuasions was even better: a journey of constant dialogue and learning. With Rabbi Sybil Sheridan of West London Synagogue and Abye Tilahun Lakew of local Jacaranda Tours as our guides, we saw vast stretches of the country’s north.

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Review: The Tin Drum ★★★★ – Günter Grass’s transgressive Peter Pan, refusing to grow up in 20th-century Europe, proves equally disturbing in Kneehigh’s new musical

It’s an odyssey through the first half of the 20th century, an unreliable memoir and a very personal state-of-the-(German) nation allegory – and that’s just Günter Grass’s epic novel. Now Kneehigh Theatre’s powerhouse of creatives stages their collective vision of the tale of Oskar, a man-child who refuses to grow up in “this despicable age”, in a corrupt and ugly world; choosing instead to remain inside the body of a three-year-old – if not the mind – for he’s a transgressive and over-sexed infant.

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JR tours: Wine, tapas and a crash course in history – Eve Kugler reports from our Andalusia trip

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.

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Review: The Melting Pot ★★★★ – Israel Zangwill’s clear-eyed 1908 vision proves urgently topical

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.

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