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.
by Judi Herman
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.
Ah, the F word again. No surprises there. But it’s the man who’s the feminist in Samantha Ellis’s fast and funny spin on Hollywood screwball romcoms, billed as “a romantic comedy turned upside down”.
Kate is a journalist who happens to be Jewish. She also happens to have a fatal attraction to bad men, both on the page (Heathcliff) and in the all too solid flesh (her ex is her promiscuous editor). Then there’s Steve, a man who happens to be a feminist. His mum brought him up at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, while Kate’s dad is an Israeli brought up in a refugee camp. She wants to be swept off her feet and into bed. Steve probably wants to sweep the floor for her first. Can they get (and keep) it together despite their prejudices, their predilections and their parents?
On the simplest of sets – designer Sebastian Noel’s cabin trunks piled and rearranged to create levels on the set of the play with which it’s in repertoire – and with the audience focusing intently from either side, three young women and two young men begin The Great Divide. They’re telling the story about a New York garment factory fire in 1911 that took the lives of 146 workers, mainly young women and Jewish refugees from Russia. Such is the power of Alix Sobler’s storytelling and the lyrical intensity of director Rory McGregor’s cast that there is little need for much more.