Shared storytelling reveals a secret history of marginalisation of the 'other' in Europe that's still ongoing today
This is a real conundrum. At first sight, Maya Arad Yasur’s Amsterdam is a theatre piece with a disturbing story to reveal, confronting the dark and complicated history of The Netherlands during the Nazi occupation, told through the prism of the present. A heavily pregnant Israeli violinist revels in living on a picturesque Amsterdam canal, until the arrival through the door of her apartment block of a gas bill dating back to 1944. The document starts a chain of surreal events that force her to explore from the inside and deal with feelings of alienation and distrust of ‘others’ and ‘outsiders’ like her among present-day Europeans.
There’s real excitement as the four hugely talented and energetic performers bound onto the stage and begin their shared third-person narrative. Their use of the historic present makes it all the more intriguing and it's fun, at least at first, when a bell sounds as a signal for an actor to run to a microphone to translate a phrase or saying in a language other than English.
Despite the assertion that "no-one wants to hear about Jews any more", she learns from persistent questioning of reluctant locals that the bill is for gas that the flat’s Jewish occupant could not use as she was deported to Auschwitz. I say that she learns, but in fact all four performers share the role of our pregnant protagonist, even when she goes into labour, although there came a point where I yearned for just one of the female actors to take the lead.
There is a wonderfully theatrical moment that comes at exactly the right time, about half way through the production’s 80 minutes, when the cast effect a spectacular set change to music involving an office set-up and an imposing, rather threatening curtain of chain mail, set with window-like apertures, right across the space dividing it in half. That is when it seemed certain that the storytellers would take specific roles, though this never ended up happening.
It seems that Yasur, the directors and actors are employing a way of storytelling called the ‘Starling Paradox’. They invent a story as a collective, inspired by the dynamics of a murmuration (flock) of starlings, told by many voices that support each other to create a group identity out of their individual voices. Intriguing as it is, it is only effective up to a point. But that is not to detract from the fast-moving direction of Matthew Zia, Actors Touring Company’s artistic director, and the high-energy performances of Daniel Abelson, Fiston Barek, Michael Horowicz and Hara Yannas on designer Naomi Kuyck-Cohen’s eventually effective set.
A programme essay reveals that "Amsterdam’s cast and creative team are made up entirely of people who identify as ‘other’: Jewish men and women, black men, Greek, South American, LGBT+, Irish, Traveller, disabled". It’s just frustrating that the potential power of their narrative is dissipated by the relentlessness of the collective storytelling.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Helen Murray
Amsterdam runs until Saturday 12 October. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Thu & Sat only). £15-£32, £15 under-30s. Orange Tree Theatre, TW9 2SA. www.atctheatre.com