Dramatic tension cleverly orchestrated in a real-life story as revealing as any well constructed fiction
Alexander Bodin Saphir has a personal tale to tell as thrilling as any Nordic noir drama. His grandparents were among the 7,000-plus Danish Jews famously rescued from the Nazis by their fellow Danes. Moreover, His grandfather, a Copenhagen tailor, holds vital clues that help solve a mystery that might reveal the secrets of occupied Denmark’s highest-ranking Nazi. In his debut play, Bodin Saphir tells his story obliquely through a quartet of engaging interlocutors, who provide laughs and heartfelt insights in equal measure. They reveal as much about themselves as about the machinations and undoubted heroism of the Danes, who rescued their fellow countrymen by ferrying them to safety in assorted small boats, Dunkirk-style, across the Øresund – the narrow strip of water between Denmark and Norway (now famous thanks to TV’s The Bridge). The December 2001 setting means the Danish mistrust of 21st-century immigrants and refugees provides a backdrop that gives the story contemporary resonance, heralding as it did, first-world discomfiture in the wake of huge migrations.
However, there’s a warm hygge-style welcome on offer in Abraham and Sara Rosenbaum’s cosy well-lit Zealand home (furnished with careful detail by designer William Fricker and warmly lit by Emma Chapman). In the wake of 9/11 and the November general election, Danish radio news is full of newly-elected PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen delivering his campaign promise to curb immigration, coupled with a heavy snow warning. For Abraham and Sara, almost all is sweetness and light as they prepare to light the candles for the fifth of the eight nights of the festival of Chanukah, which celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from occupying Greek forces circa 160 BCE. They exchange the easy, needling banter of the long-established couple: she a homemaker, baker of festive treat donuts – her son’s favourites – he a Jewish husband in the Jackie Mason mode (so not a handyman and incapable of fixing a leak in the basement).
For David Bamber’s fervent Abraham, Chanukah’s inspiring ‘strapline’: “a great miracle happened here”, signifies equally the rescue of Denmark’s Jews. He basks in the warm glow of his faith in this new miracle, one that awakened his own faith as an observant Jew. Julia Swift’s expansive, practical Sara lives in the present, busily preparing for the imminent arrival of a pair of guests with their own agendas, Abraham’s childhood friend Lars, from whom he is evidently estranged, and Lars’s daughter Eva. Neil McCaul’s commanding, demandingly strident Lars, a historian pursuing the truth in forensic detail, is armed with a tiny, scary recording device. It rests balefully on the coffee table, for his mission is to uncover a wartime secret he is convinced is harboured in Abraham’s reminiscences. As Sara opines caustically, “It sounds like he's brought his hatchet”. Lars’s vibrant, clever daughter Eva, Dorothea Myer-Bennett, glowing with intelligence, has chosen the German nationality of her mother, who is estranged from Lars. She is fascinated by what might be revealed, but an uneasy truce soon breaks down. Happily, even as Lars storms out, the weather closes in, the quartet must huddle together for warmth and in true Nordic noir tradition, the scene is set for revelations.
As the harrowing circumstances of Lars and Abraham’s childhood meeting at the height of the occupation are revealed, together with the loss and pain that might explain their estrangement, a feverish search for the truth in a Jewish tailor’s file card dating from 1943, noting his customer’s measurements and name, leads to an unexpected climax. For in an inspired coup de theatre, Bodin Saphir brings us right back to Chanukah, now in its eighth day.
Kate Fahy directs with flair four terrific, perfectly cast actors, expertly negotiating the twists and turns of the story arc. Go and be gripped by a fascinating tale with a true-life cliff-hanger that transcends any clever storytelling.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Mark Douet
Rosenbaum’s Rescue runs until Saturday 9 February. 7.30pm, 3pm (Thu & Sat only). £18.50-£32.50, £16.50-£23.50 concs. Park Theatre, N4 3JP. 020 7870 6876. www.parktheatre.co.uk
Listen to our interview with playwright Alexander Bodin Saphir on JR OutLoud.