Interview: Na’ama Zisser

Interview: Na’ama Zisser

Israeli composer Na’ama Zisser tells us about writing her Jewish opera Mamzer Bastard. Imagine you’re in New York in the 1970s. Jimmy Carter is either in office or about to be, bands like the Bee Gees and Elton John are vying for top spot in the charts, and one very apprehensive groom named Yoel is dreading his impending wedding…

Rose comes HOME: Richard Beecham and Janet Suzman discuss the play's return in Manchester

“There is no more demanding role in the canon than Rose,” declared Richard Beecham, director of the first UK revival of Martin Sherman’s award-winning play, which premiered at the National Theatre in 1999.

This one-actor tour de force about persecution, displacement and survival stars Dame Janet Suzman in what Beecham describes as an “extraordinary role for an older actress” and runs at HOME, Manchester, until Saturday 10 June. “Older chaps get the parts,” he explained when he and Suzman spoke to the press prior to the play’s opening. She agreed that there were too few roles for older actresses and interjected with a wry smile: “I can understand why Glenda Jackson said ‘bugger it – I’ll play King Lear’.”

Beecham describes how Sherman has written about “an extraordinary century for Jewish people”, which chimed, according to him, with the enormous refugee crisis we are living through now. “It feels current. It actually feels like a 21st century play,” he stressed.

The play is “a cracker about a life lived with wit and energy”, with Suzman adding: “Refugees are unbearably brave. They need to get out and so does Rose; she is in crisis all the time, facing a series of terrible choices.” From her home in Florida, an 80-year-old Rose takes us through her long life: from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, through Nazi occupied Warsaw, to Palestine, America and the so-called Occupied Territories.

When I ask Suzman to what extent she identifies with Rose, she replies by clasping both hands tightly together: “Like that!” She exclaims. “I have pity and respect for people who’ve had a ghastly life. I rebelled [in South Africa’s apartheid days], boycotted, was kicked around by police… I didn’t want to act in comfortable little plays or domestic comedy. I wanted to be on the edge.”

Rose, she says, is the first Jewish part she's played, describing her own attitude like Jonathan Miller’s: 'Jew-ish'. She proceeds to challenge us to name one good role written for a Jewish mother and states, in her deep, rich, resonant voice: “I haven’t Jew-ished myself.”

By Gita Conn

Rose runs until Saturday 10 June. 7.30pm, 2pm (1, 3, 7 & 10 Jun only). £10-£26.50. Home, Manchester, M15 4FN. 01612 001 500.

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If This is a Man 70 years on: AL Kennedy discusses an anniversary reading of the Primo Levi novel

At 3.15 pm on Sunday 30 April a cast of actors, writers and academics amongst others will read from the first page of Primo Levi’s seminal novel If This is a Man. Taking on chunks of the text each to read aloud, they will only stop when they reach the novel’s final page – an estimated six-hour feat. This unique reading is taking place at London’s Southbank Centre to mark 70 years since the publication of Levi’s harrowing account of the year he spent in Auschwitz concentration camp when he was 23 years old.

We spoke to one of the curators of the event, novelist AL Kennedy, about why the book remains so significant today.

When did you first read If This Is A Man? I read If This Is A Man and the Truce (the accompanying volume that describes Levi’s experiences immediately after the liberation of Auschwitz) for the first time when I was a teenager. In the 1970s and 80s you were beginning to see mass representation of the Holocaust on TV so it was a subject that was beginning to make an impact on me.

I was brought up in a nominally Christian family, but my mother who was at teacher’s training college told me stories of a woman she trained with who had escaped from Europe under a train with her husband. It was the first time I had heard of anyone having to do something like that.

I was filled with the inescapable question: how could this have happened? As a teenager the book was one of my principle educational experiences.

Why is it important to read today? The seeds of the event were sewn last year. We had just had the Brexit vote and there was the discussion about EU citizens and their rights. There was a demonisation of foreigners here, and of Muslims in the States, and antisemitism alongside the rise of Donald Trump. The book seemed very prescient.  Levi seemed to be saying that if you ignore the rise of these things the end result could be a prisoner death camp.

How can literature combat these trends? Books are a way to understand people who aren’t you.

Are you worried people might be put off the event because it is so long? It’s a long reading but we wanted to dispel the fear that terrible things will happen if we sit and listen to literature all night!

The further east you go in Europe, the longer the literary events go on, especially in the former Soviet Union countries. There is an understanding that it is a privilege to read literature, there is a hunger for it.  In the past people risked their lives to hear literature. In Britain we take the freedom to read what we want for granted.

Literature balances oppression. We need to be wary as it is rolled back and becomes increasingly commercial. The importance of literature has drifted and we need to ensure that we don’t take it for granted.

By Rebecca Taylor

Photo by Donna-Lisa Healy

Primo Levi's If This is a Man takes place on Sunday 30 April. 3.15pm. £15-£25. Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, SE1 8XX. 0844 875 0073.

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JR OutLoud: As Shakespeare's Merchant finally arrives in Venice, we speak to actor Paul Spera

As the long-awaited date of the first performance of The Merchant of Venice in the Venice Ghetto itself arrives this week, in the last of our series of interviews with members of the company, JR's arts editor Judi Herman talks to French-American actor Paul Spera. Based in Paris, Spera plays Lorenzo, the Christian youth who elopes with Shylock's daughter, Jessica – and plenty of his money and jewels – thus goading the distraught father into seeking the revenge that leads to his demand for the famous pound of flesh from Antonio, the merchant of the title. Spera is interesting casting for the role of the Christian lad who steals away with the Jewish girl as he is half Jewish himself. And so we come full circle with this series of interviews with members of Compagnia de Colombari, for we began with Michelle Uranowitz aka Jessica herself.

JR OutLoud: As Shakespeare's Merchant finally arrives in Venice, we speak to actress Francesca Sarah Toich

As the long-awaited date of the first performance of The Merchant of Venice in the Venice Ghetto itself arrives this week, in the last of our series of interviews with members of the company, JR's arts editor Judi Herman talks to actress Francesca Sarah Toich. Playing the role of Lancillotto, the servant to Shylock and confidante of Jessica, his daughter, normally a male role, but here intriguingly played by Toich, as a sort of cross-gender Harlequin figure. Italy-based Francesca is an award-winning performer who combines skills and experience in the very physical Commedia dell Arte tradition with a huge vocal range.

JR OutLoud: Jenni Lea-Jones talks to JR about her role in The Merchant in Venice at Venice Ghetto 500

In the next of our chats with members of the cast and creative team of the very first production of The Merchant of Venice to be staged in the Venice Ghetto itself, Judi Herman talks to Welsh actress Jenni Lea-Jones, who has relocated to Venice and is perhaps the most unusual of the five performers sharing the role of Shylock in the show they are calling The Merchant in Venice. Apologies for the quality of the line at the start of this conversation, which happily soon improves.

JR OutLoud: Frank London talks to JR about composing for The Merchant in Venice at Venice Ghetto 500

In the next of our chats with members of the cast and creative team of the very first production of The Merchant of Venice to be staged in the Venice Ghetto itself, Judi Herman talks to Frank London, composer and musician. The Grammy-winning trumpeter and composer, founder of the Klezmatics and leader of bhangra/Yiddish group Sharabi (with Deep Singh), Shekhinah Big Band, and his Klezmer Brass Allstars is no stranger to large-scale collaborative projects, or of course to Jewish-themed work. Here he talks about the musicians who are working with him on this project and his inspirations for the music that will be heard in the Ghetto.

See Alexandra & Nikole Stoica, the twin violin virtuosos from Romania that Frank talks about, who will play in the production:

Hear music by Salomone Rossi (his beautiful Kaddish – the mourner's prayer), the 17th-century, Italian-Jewish composer, who was one the inspirations that Frank mentions:

Interview: Shaul Bassi discusses the mock appeal to be heard alongside Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which is being performed in the Venice Ghetto for the first time

Shaul Bassi In July, as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is performed in the Venice Ghetto for the very first time, a trial featuring advocates for Shylock, Antonio and Portia will take place in Venice’s Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Will it overturn the verdict from the play, in which Shylock is tried, found guilty of threatening the life of a Venetian, and then fined and forced to convert to Christianity? Shaul Bassi, director of Beit Venezia: A Home for Jewish Culture, and one of the movers behind the city’s Jewish cultural events this year, reveals his side of the story.

"It is more accurately a mock appeal," explains Bassi. "A wonderful companion piece to the production. And it’s to be held in one of the most prestigious and breathakingly beautiful venues in Venice, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, almost entirely decorated by Tintoretto.

We’re not going to see the play’s characters. It is a mock appeal, so we’re going to have three advocates for Shylock, Antonio and Portia. Each will present a case for Shylock, Antonio with the Republic of Venice and Portia.They will try to persuade a jury of five real judges that they should reverse or confirm the verdict of the trial in the play. It’s a kind of legal sequel."

The verdict of the play could be overturned. How does Portia come to be represented?

"The idea was to keep Antonio and Shylock as the plaintiff and defendant, but one of the lawyers working on the project said there’s a case to be made that the whole legal procedure of the play was illegal because Portia was practising the law without a licence. That adds to the fun."

Who is the presiding judge?

"Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, a legal eagle and public icon for human and civil rights in the States and beyond. We’re privileged to have her offering a contemporary dimension to our discussion.

There’s no Jewish majority in the jury. Everyone is coming here with the idea of being even-handed, but also to do their best to help the audience see al the legal and ethical implications of the play from all possible angles."

You’re also going to share what you’ve found out about Venetian merchants and the law in Shakespeare’s time…

"We’re going to have a small presentation on arbitration in early modern Venice – at that time it wasn’t a good idea to go to trial. Merchants went out of their way not to go to trial when they had a dispute to settle! They would try to resort to arbitration and the funny thing I’ve learned is that there was even a verb ‘palazzare’ which meant to go to the Palazzo Ducale for trial, which was the one thing they wanted to avoid at all possible cost."

The line up of internationally famous guests contributing to the evening doesn’t stop with Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, doesn't it?

"We’re going to be blessed with the presence of actor F Murray Abraham, a celebrated Shylock in the United States. He is not part of the production but of the documentary series Shakespeare Uncovered, so he’s going to lead discussion on  certain aspects of the play and  read out extracts. And we’re also blessed with the presence of two of the most brilliant Shakespeare scholars, James Shapiro, who wrote Shakespeare and the Jews; and Stephen Greenblatt, who has really changed the history of Shakespeare criticism."

So how will they fit into the evening?

"Each will give a little speech on the play and the three lawyers will present their case for 15-20 minutes each with questions and answers from the jury and finally we’re going to find out what’s going to happen because there’s no script. We have a structure but there’s no forgone conclusion.

All this (the trial alongside the performances of The Merchant of Venice) would not be possible without these people who really understand the uniqueness of of this moment 500 years since the creation of the Ghetto, 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. It’s an amazing coincidence, which we also wanted to use to reflect. Talking about today, it’s also about the role of foreigners in any society – the extent you’re prepared to change society to accommodate them, to expel them once they become a disturbing presence – it’s a very topical play."

How can we watch the proceedings?

"Tickets are understandably limited, but we’re going to film it."

What is your role in the production of The Merchant of Venice, as well as the events surrounding it?

"I am Associate Professor of English Literature at Ca’ Foscari University and this production and concept was conceived at the university. This very fruitful collaboration between our university and Compagnia de’ Colombari, an international theatre company, is not an academic production. It’s multi ethnic (it includes American, British, Croatian, French,  Indian and  Italian actors) and colour blind and to some extent gender blind. And people have brought their legal knowledge to the table. first and foremost Justice Ginsberg, so it’s a great collaborative project. It’s also winner of a Creative Europe project that included two British Universities, Queen Mary College London and Warwick University and the programme Global Shakespeare. We’ve been working together to show how Shakespeare is relevant throughout Europe."

What will be the legacy of these extraordinary events?

"We’re going to turn all the artistic material, the outcomes of both the trial and the production into educational material. The main goal for dissemination of the project will become a resource for people interested in the play that we’ve called the Shylock Encyclopedia. It will be online and the idea is that it’s really accessible to everybody and maybe it will also be a sort of open encyclopedia that one can add posts to. We want to put everything at the disposal of students, scholars, actors and directors, whoever wants to deal with this most controversial of plays for years to come."

By Judi Herman

Find more interviews with members of the Venice Ghetto production of The Merchant of Venice on JR OutLoud. Or visit for further info.