Extraordinary stories continue to come out of the Holocaust. And writers continue to explore how human nature is pushed to its limits through the extraordinary circumstances of the Shoah.
Writer Cordelia O’Neill sets her play in 1945. Her protagonists, Jew and Nazi, appear to the audience as interviewees of the Allied forces. Isabella is a Jewish ballerina, interned in a concentration camp; like the well-documented real-life examples where musicians were corralled into playing for camp officials, she is ordered to dance at a party thrown by Annie, wife of the camp commandant, Fredrick. Their lives become not only intertwined, but actually interchanged (almost like Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, in which the future Edward VI, Henry VIII’s little son, swaps lives with a street urchin), so that they actually change places, as Annie sees Fredrick attracted to Isabella, who begins to see Fredrick – himself disillusioned with the war – as a man she could love.
The horrors of the mass killing of disabled children perpetrated by the Nazis are less well-known than the Holocaust, though they were arguably a rehearsal for the final solution. All Our Children, a moving drama from director turned writer Stephen Unwin, tells their story by focusing on one so-called clinic and the awakening conscience of Victor, the ageing doctor who runs it. Unwin dedicates his drama to his son Joey, who has profound learning difficulties, so this first play from the acclaimed theatre director is an intensely personal story.
Some years back, I interviewed Rabbi Jonathan Black for radio, making a cameo appearance in EastEnders conducting a Jewish wedding. Not already a viewer, I duly researched by watching an omnibus edition and learned how you ‘gotta talk’. Jewish (non-Orthodox) playwright Stewart Permutt did his research by consulting a Charedi friend. So there’s a real authenticity about his protagonist Gideon – what brands of bread and crisps he can eat (Kingsmill and Walkers) and what he cannot drink from (glass).
When witty Jewish writing duo George Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote this back-of-the-movie-lot comedy, set at the birth of the talkies, neither had been to Hollywood, but they knew enough about the goings-on in the movie business to know it would suit their satirical wise-cracking style. Kaufman co-wrote The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers for the Marx Brothers and this witty habitué of the Algonquin Round Table never lost his sense of sarcasm. He said about one play: “I saw it under adverse conditions; the curtain was up!” The plotlines in their collaborations were primarily Hart’s while Kaufman focused on the witty, sarcastic dialogue.
How strangely Miller’s first great hit resonates with today, in ways no one could have predicted. This beautifully measured play opens with shots of laidback family life in a typical American small town where everyone knows one another. Comfortably-off factory owner Joe Keller’s backyard is a focal point, where he and the neighbouring doctor are reading the papers. “What’s today’s calamity?” jokes David Horovitch’s amiable Joe. Cue gales of ironic audience laughter, with the US election so raw.
For a play that unfolds like a Greek tragedy, it’s surprising how much laughter is built into these opening scenes. But that’s the point: drama, and especially tragedy, is an interruption of routine.
I rounded off October by spending two consecutive evenings being excited and challenged by the work of two talented young Israeli performing artists, both with so much to offer. Niv Petel is heartbreaking in Knock Knock, his beautifully nuanced account of a devastating situation faced by too many Israeli families, and Hagit Yakira attracted full houses for her exciting new work Free Falling.
Petel is an extraordinary physical actor, wonderfully convincing as a devoted mother whose son is the centre of her life. An engaging and important contribution to our understanding of life in Israel. And at Sadler’s Wells last week, dancer/choreographer Yakira presented four talented performers falling and recovering again as they take what life throws at them. Supporting each other, their eyes and faces as important as the rest of their bodies as they look out for each other. In a beguiling add on, three more dance artists responded to Free Falling – including full audience participation on the studio floor, everyone linked in a joyful dance – a sort of Hora at Sadler’s Wells, which makes Israeli dance so welcome. Niv Petel and Hagit Yakira are certainly names to watch.
Clad simply in a white top and khaki trousers, to which he adds such details as a white apron, Petel bowls a blinder by playing the mother of his young conscript. He stacks the emotional stakes high – she’s a single mother and an army therapist, trained to tell bereaved parents the worst, to make that dreaded knock on the door, and to work with them through the grief and loss that will form part of the rest of their lives. For most of the show Petel talks intimately and affectionately to his son. The account of their intense relationship is beautifully paced, starting with Ilad as a babe in arms and then as a toddler; at kindergarten, then junior school; as stroppy teenager and, inevitably, at 18 preparing for the draft.
I’ll always be grateful to Steven Berkoff. Back in my days as drama lecturer, blown away by his 1983 play West, his second foray into life on London’s gangland manors, I wrote to him via his agent to ask if I might borrow the unpublished script. The hard copy arrived almost as fast as an email might now, by return with a friendly invitation to keep it. My students adored playing the scabrously ornate muscular verse and the body language it demanded.
Often at shiva prayers it strikes me how much the late-lamented might have enjoyed the gathering of nearest and dearest, but would they have enjoyed the eulogies? Might they not have confessed (or complained) “that’s not the real me, warts and all”? David Baddiel goes further in his scurrilous tribute to his late mother, who died suddenly in 2014. He confides in his audience that Sarah Baddiel loved not only being centre stage, but also a bearded, pipe-smoking golf salesman for 20 years – apparently unnoticed by her husband, even wangling him an invitation to David’s bar mitzvah. Seriously, he’s there in the photo album.
Antony Sher’s performance is literally towering at the opening of the play, directed by his husband, RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran. Lear is borne in on a huge platform above the glittering monochrome of his court (designer Niki Turner), wrapped in fur cloaks that make him larger than life, his every pronouncement accompanied by thunderous chords to make of him a primitive demigod. He may look “every inch a king”, as he says ironically later in the strange lucidity of his madness on the cliffs at Dover, but he is equally a very foolish old man, as he also refers to himself later. His rejection of youngest daughter Cordelia (Natalie Simpson, all quiet resolution in white) is especially cruel, arbitrary and yes, senile, simply because of that god-like build up.