Before Homo sapiens there was Neanderthal man. And before Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Attenborough, there was Dr Jacob Bronowski. A Polish Jewish refugee, Bronowski became one of the first intellectuals to achieve TV stardom with his series The Ascent of Man. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which playwright David Byrne cites as one of his biggest inspirations, Yuval Harari argues that sapiens wiped out other human cousins. Of course, Byrne isn’t arguing that television pundits are lethally competitive (though that might make a compelling reality show), but with the company, and co-director Kate Stanley, he has devised a provocative and engaging evening that fleshes out scientific theory onstage by interlocking Dr Bronowski’s story with the meta-story of sapiens – and the story of a one-night stand. Thus, one of Harari’s other central theories, his perspective on relative time – that sapiens’ time has been short compared to life on earth and is not limitless – is demonstrated in just 90 minutes.
To watch 41 very young – and very talented – dancers executing Sharon Eyal’s exacting and precise choreography is to share a life-affirming and exhilarating experience with the rest of the audience and the young company themselves. The Israeli choreographer and Guest Artistic Director at Sadler’s Wells has created a dazzling work for, and with, members of the National Youth Dance Company. They move so seamlessly together that they seem like one coiling, shimmering organism, clad in tight, shiny black bodysuits and boots (the costumes are Eyal’s concept too), their hands and faces caught in the chiaroscuro of Alon Cohen’s stunning lighting. All this is driven by the insistent techno track created by Eyal’s long-time collaborator and pioneer of Israel’s techno scene, Ori Lichtik.
If backstage musicals featuring mothers who will stop at nothing are your bag, you’ll recognise and revel in this no-holds-barred, wildly over-the-top spoof of and homage to the genre. Think Gypsy, think All About Eve – Ruthless goes further, placing (ahem) centre-stage a would-be child star prepared to fight to the death (literally) for the title role in the school show. That the role is Pippi Longstocking in a musical featuring Astrid Lindgren’s famous child heroine is a delicious joke for some.
In fact Ruthless! is a ‘Marmite’ musical – lip-licking or nose-wrinkling, according to taste. It’s as clever as it is tasteless and Joel Paley’s book and lyrics with Marvin Laird’s music are often very clever indeed. Paley wears his heart on his sleeve by giving his women characters – yes, this is an all-girl affair, even if one of his monstrous regiment is played here with élan (and a killer wig) by performer/choreographer Jason Gardiner – names like Judy, Eve and Ginger. Paley admits to postponing his bar mitzvah to appear in a world premiere, so he knows of what he writes.
Anneliese (Ilsa) Kohlmann was a guard in Neuengamme concentration camp, said to have had liaisons with female prisoners. From the few facts that remain, playwright Yonatan Calderon has wrought a short play of shocking beauty, imagining a relationship between Kohlmann and a young Czech-Jewish prisoner, talented ballerina Lotte Rosner, feted in pre-war Prague.
The action takes place both in the 1940s in the camps and in 1991 in a Tel Aviv on lockdown during Gulf War air raids. With great subtlety Calderon has two women play the younger and older Lotte – and then tops this by requiring the actor playing Charlotte in 1991 to play Kohlmann in 1942, while ‘young’ Lotte plays an unwelcome visitor in 1991, seeking to reawaken Charlotte’s carefully-buried memories. A third actor is Lotte’s fellow prisoner and confidante as well as a pair of Nazis in the camp and a ghostly presence in 1991.
Director Ariella Eshed and choreographer Revital Snir build on this coup de théâtre to create a production of great theatrical beauty; scene changes are balletic dance sequences where the actors help each other into different garments to morph between characters and time periods on Joanne Marshall’s simple, versatile set.
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.
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).