Jewish Theatre

Is NotMoses the Exodus story, but not as we know it? Judi Herman speaks to its writer Gary Sinyor about a tale that's not so set in stone

Gary Sinyor - NotMoses 2015 Manchester-born filmmaker Gary Sinyor makes his theatre debut with NotMoses, an irreverent retelling of the Exodus story – starting with the baby the Princess leaves floating on the Nile when she spots Moses, a nicer baby. NotMoses grows up a slave in Prince Moses’ shadow, until God orders both of them to lead the Israelites out of bondage – though it takes feisty Miriam to actually lead the Exodus. Think Life of Brian meets The Ten Commandments, which Sinyor says is a comparison he hears often.

"I think it's because there is only one other biblical comedy, Mel Brooks’ History of the World. But it is more like The Life of Brian because History of the World went through the ages and this is very much centred on the Exodus from Egypt."

Might this do for Moses what The Life of Brian did for Jesus?

"This started life as a film script and I may make it as a film at some point in the future. Unlike The Life of Brian where you’ve got one character, I sort of knew I needed to have Not Moses and Moses. In a sense, philosophically as well, I knew I wanted to have God in the play. So I knew there were certain things and a couple of scenes that I wanted to do from the off. And then I just had a huge amount of fun writing it. It’s not quite a parody of The Ten Commandments but if you take that film, which has Moses, the Princess, Pharaoh, Rameses, you’ve got certain obvious characters that come to mind. And I knew that I wanted to have Not Moses, a slave in the background of the story in Bible terms, very much in the foreground of the story in this play. You’re looking at the story of the Exodus from the point of view of those slaves in the background, not from the point of view of Moses, who was at the Palace enacting things with Pharaoh. So it’s that dichotomy of having two different families, the slave family in the foreground with the Moses story on the side."

So how did it get to be a play in the theatre rather than a film, when you’ve always been a filmmaker?

"About a year ago someone said to me 'you should do it as a play' and I thought, you’re right! I’m constantly going to the theatre, it’s such an exciting medium, always sold out and quite often people are laughing uproariously. And quite often I go to the cinema and there’s no one sitting in there two weeks after the film has opened. And it goes to DVD and it’s on Netflix very quickly and you’re not experiencing the same amount of fun. You see theatre shows  like The Book of Mormon and Spamalot that have longevity, and for me this story was too funny and too interesting - and potentially a bit challenging – to see disappear after a couple of weeks in a cinema."

It sounds as if you’re going to want to be there every night so you can hug yourself when the audience laughs…

"I was planning on it but I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that the actors would not be jumping up and down to have the director there every night. I may well have to go in disguise. But it’s an extraordinary experience to be in a cinema or a theatre and hear the audience responding to something. So although I am sure I won’t be there every night, I might dress up in disguise on occasions."

My mind is boggling, what will you dress up as? If Moses – or NotMoses – you would be noticed! So it’s a bit like Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, where two minor characters from Hamlet take centre stage and Hamlet himself soliloquises away in the background?

"The Moses story is there. I shouldn’t call it a bastardisation, a clear retelling or reinvention of the Moses story is there but for me it was important to have a Not Moses – he’s like an atheist, he doesn’t believe in God and he wants to lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt without the help of anyone else. He says ‘we should just get out, go!’ and no one listens to him because people are waiting for God to perform miracles. So, if you like, he’s the rebel slave hanging around in the background of the biblical story. Because I am sure there were people saying ‘let’s get the hell out of here during those two hundred odd years. People rebel and that was one of the things I wanted to tackle. The Bible is itself really weird on this. We have a point of view of what these slaves were doing and what they looked like almost from art and the film. The truth is they left with gold and silver and they seemed to have flocks and cows and it’s difficult to get a handle on what kind of slaves these were."

It’s obvious you’ve read the Torah, checked out the portions. Did you have the sort of upbringing where that’s a given?

"We come from a Sephardi background and we used to go to Synagogue every Shabbat. And I used to read that portion from the Hertz Chumash in English year after year until I was 16 or 17. So it sort of engrained itself. And when I started going again when I was older, I read it again. And at times I read it with an uncritical eye. At one point I did a Project Seed thing and was sold on what they’re trying to do (‘Seed provides adult and family Jewish education across the UK through formal study and informal experiences. We aim to strengthen the family through positive Jewish encounters and by sharing the richness of Jewish life, learning and values’ – from Project Seed website) I thought okay I’ll take that leap of faith and then I undid that leap of faith and now when I go to synagogue I do look at it with a more critical eye."

Your God is emphatically He with a capital H, but then Miriam is not just playing a supporting role, she’s playing a leader’s role. Tell me more about her. It sounds as if God and Miriam are the partnership leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt.

"Miriam comes into the play more and more as it goes on but she is a feminist – not even a feminist, she is just a fighter for equal women’s rights in a very patriarchal world. And even the other women in it are like; ‘shut up and make the soup’. She is very much - and I stress this is a comedy - an early forerunner of the fight for women’s rights, within not just religion but generally. And she probably has the strongest speech towards the end of the play, which lays out a position, more or less in front of God. People do challenge God. There are scenes where Moses does that in the burning bush story in the Bible. He says ‘who am I?’ and I have just taken that a lot further."

I love that you take it seriously as well, though the press have stressed the comedy and irreverence. It sounds as if there are a lot of laughs but it’s not just sending it up.

"No, in a weird way it’s very difficult. You have children and you like the idea of bringing them up in the Jewish religion. We’re caught up in incredibly difficult times and I want my children to be brought up with a cosy, Jewish, lovely warm environment, which offers  a two-year old and a nine-month old Hannukah and it’s marvellous and the memories one has (of Festivals) from Passover to Sukkot are all amazing. But I think if one’s talking about the truth behind these stories, then I certainly think that some of that is challenged by the context of the play."

Do you belong to a synagogue?

"We belong to New North London but because I am Sephardi I also go to the Persian Community at Kinloss. So we alternate between the two, if I go out of the house and turn left I go to New North London, if I go right it’s Kinloss."

You’ve said the audience has a role to play in your show as the Children of Israel…

"When I adapted it from a film into a play, it was a joy. For example in the film I’d been talking to people about how you create 600,000 0r three million people, so there was that whole CGI thing and I was having conversations very seriously about how to make it as a film. When I came to the play I thought, how am I going to do that? I’ll just turn the audience into the Children of Israel! They will experience, for example being harangued by a taskmaster and the 10 plagues will be experienced in some way shape or form that I am not going to go into …! So there is that inclusive quality that theatre offers you and at some points the fourth wall will be broken. I did have a couple of read-throughs previously, after doing workshops on it with the cast and it was extraordinary. We had 20 people who were laughing uproariously. So the idea of having 350 is even better. And I think it will be cinematic as well, it’s not a static play. It has nine members in the cast, down from 600,000."

The Arts Theatre has a good track record of getting lots of people laughing at Jewish humour, with Bad Jews for example, doesn't it?

"It’s a really lovely theatre and they’ve got Ruby Wax coming there in January, which is interesting as well; and more than anything else they are just so enthusiastic to have the play there and give it a ten-week run, which for a new play is really quite extraordinary."

Jews are good at laughing at themselves – I guess they can laugh at religion too?

"I think we can, but I’d be mortified if Christians and Muslims and atheists didn’t come along as well. It’s not like only Christians went to see The Life of Brian. There is something underneath this which well, is just funny, but hopefully it applies to people across the Abrahamic faiths and beyond. It won’t be a solely Jewish cast and it won’t be a solely white cast. So we are doing our best to make it appeal across the board and make a point at the same time."

You’re playing over Purim and Passover – it’ll be like a Purimspiel for Purim.

"Yes we are playing over Purim which will be an exciting night I think. And I have said to the theatre that they should kashrut the bar over Pesach (Passover) and they should certainly be selling matzah sandwiches of some sort. And I haven’t pointed it out to them but they certainly won’t be selling many beers. And yes it’s certainly playing over Purim. Seder night will be difficult, certainly the first night. I think they’ll be marketing to anyone except the Jewish audience that night. Who knows about the second night…"

Second night Seder at your play perhaps?

"There is a Seder in the play as well, the leaving from Egypt."

Actually it might have quite a resonance because it’s so timely, as it’s playing at the right moment running over Passover.

"Yes, it’s the best slot I could have hoped for. Well, I could have hoped for it about five years ago, that would have been good as well."

Manchester does seem to be a hotbed of Jewish creativity, what with Nick Hytner Howard Jacobson and Jack Rosenthal, to name but three.

"I think there is something about Manchester that is very different from London. My children are being brought up in London. Every time I go back, which I do four or five times a year, it does remind you you’re outside of it in a way you’re not in London. In fact the Jewish family in Not Moses that Not Moses is brought up in are going to be talking with Manchester accents."

So they’re 'provincial’ in other words. You must be saying it’s a plus factor too?

"Oh it gives you creative inspiration.  I lived in Los Angeles for a while, where they’re only going to come up with stories about valet parking – they have no angst to build on. Angst is a crucial part. And there’s more angst in Manchester than in London I think – or there could be more in Leeds – I wouldn’t want to claim the crown."

By Judi Herman

NotMoses runs Thursday 10 March – Saturday 14 May, 7.30pm & 2.30pm, £19.50-£69.50, at the Arts Theatre, Great Newport St, WC2H 7JB.


Review: Crossing Jerusalem with Julia Pascal proves a turbulent journey into the past for Judi Herman

Trudy Weiss and Louisa Clein in Crossing Jerusalem at The Park Theatre © Mia Hawk Years ago I made a radio feature in Jerusalem – it doesn’t matter what it was about. I wanted to weave a soundscape that evoked the troubled city. As I walked its streets recording, a muezzin chanted the Muslim call to prayer and church bells sounded. Through the windows of a yeshiva (Jewish religious school), which were open for the heat, I could see the boys with their side locks and hear them chanting dutifully after their bearded teacher; and all the while overhead a helicopter hovered, its roar providing an ominous background to these sounds of the divided City.

Just as, sadly, my soundscape has not dated, so Julia Pascal’s 2003 play, set during the Second Intifada, still provides a careful exploration of what life is like for men and women who live on different sides of Israel’s idealistic divide; Arab and Jewish Israelis, Muslims, Christians and Jews.

She was able to research its background during time spent in Israel, when she sought to talk in depth to members of its different communities. Speaking French meant she could pass as Catholic to elicit a perhaps franker response from Israeli Arabs than if she had been overtly Jewish. She was taken aback when some spoke of their pipe dream of a Jew-free Israel. But she has duly put their words in the mouths of her younger generation of Arab citizens of the Jewish State.

Pascal's story of two families, of Jews and Arabs, has two generations of the Jewish family make the crossing of the title for a celebratory meal in what used to be their favourite Arab eaterie before the Second Intifada made the crossing so much more problematical (imagine the heightened tension in London after the July 2005 bombings continuing right though the last 10 years). The Arab family owns the restaurant – tellingly perhaps, we never meet its female members. Over the course of the play, though, Pascal paints detailed portraits of both Jews and Arabs of different generations, from those old enough to remember being teenagers during the 1967 Six-Day War to a teenager almost 40 years later, via twenty- and thirtysomethings.

Crossing Jerusalem at The Park Theatre © Mia Hawk

Crossing Jerusalem begins with the whole cast in a spirited, apparently relaxed dance to an Israeli rap number that does indeed give way to a soundscape with helicopters, as IDF (Israeli Defence Force) snipers and Arab teenagers armed with stones exchange fire.

The playwright presents a complicated story of family life, especially in the Jewish family of matriarch Varda Kaufmann-Goldstein, her second husband, Russian émigré Sergei Goldstein, her son Gideon – currently serving in the IDF – and her daughter Liora, about to do some military service too. And that meal is to celebrate the birthday of her daughter-in-law, Yael, mother of her (unseen) five-year-old granddaughter. Sammy’s restaurant is run by the eponymous Sammy Hada, with the help of Yusuf Khallil, whose younger brother Sharif is one of those young teenagers lobbing stones at soldiers. Sharif is a hot head or a brave youngster prepared to make a stand, depending on which community you belong to – and even within his own community, to some extent opinion is divided between generations.

Pascal's interlocking family stories, though complicated, give her play a narrative drive with uncomfortable revelations that are often a microcosm of the bigger picture in Israel. It's a picture that has developed since 1948 and the difficult birth of the Jewish state, so longed for by so many but for the Arab community, "the Naqba", the disaster, through the Six-Day War and succeeding wars and uprisings, to the untenable situation today. A central motor of the plot is the idea that just as the Jews are entitled to reparations after the Holocaust, so the Palestinians might expect similar dues.

Chris Sryrides and Trudy Weiss in Crossing Jerusalem at The Park Theatre © Mia Hawk

Although matriarch Varda is nominally at the centre of the story, out and proud as a still-sexy 58-year-old wife, mother and grandmother in Trudy Weiss’s big expansive performance, Pascal’s skill is to ensure that the audience gets to know each character equally well and the joys and loves, traumas and tensions that have brought them to where they are on this crucial day in 2003.

Regardless of whether you sympathise, understanding where each is coming from is a way into understanding what life is like "on the ground" in this complex, frustrating and, for so many, heart-breaking situation.

Pascal has a gift for drawing feisty women of both generations presented here warts and all. Varda’s relationships with her daughter and daughter-in-law have their upsides and downsides. Her free-spirited daughter Liora (a vivid performance from Lousia Clein) is a defiantly free spirit, with a messy love life – and a real love of the life she spends working with young people from Arab and Jewish communities towards coexistence. Daughter-in-law Yael may represent the Sephardi community in Pascal’s microcosm, but she is no cipher. She is a warm wife and mother (Israeli actor Adi Lerer has a lovely warmth), who, with her Algerian background, also professes an understanding for and with the Palestinian-Arab community. It’s easy to see why the girl might find infuriating self-centred Varda hard work. And Varda’s business interests, past and present, as a realtor and as an employer of cheap Arab labour, make for some uneasy skeletons in the cupboard. But again the particular standing for the whole does not make for a cardboard character.

Pascal also succeeds in avoiding the schematic in drawing her men. As refusenik Gideon, the solider who wants out, David Ricardo-Pearce is sympathetic, then actually heart-breaking, describing the traumatic events of conflict that haunt him and the sheer emotional demoralisation of serving in the IDF in the occupied territories. So even as the tensions within his apparently happy, sensual marriage with Yael become more evident, they become easier to understand too. Chris Spyrides’ Sergei injects humour into the tension and the audience quickly latches on to his repeated catchphrase "Sorry about that!", but he too has a story of tragedy, for as a Soviet Jew, he has lost his son in the Afghan conflict.

Waleed Elgadi and Adi Lerer in Crossing Jerusalem at The Park Theatre © Mia Hawk

The Arabs at the restaurant represent different generations too. There’s gentle peacemaker Sammy, the Christian restaurant proprietor (played by a sympathetic Andy Lucas). Waleed Elgadi is powerful as Yusuf, uncompromising in his demands for reparations for his family , finding his voice as he comes to believe in the justice of his cause, yet trying to curb his hot-headed younger brother Sharif (Alistair Toovey, convincingly turning from teenage hothead to something more dangerous at the perceived injustices perpetrated on his friends and his people).

There are also telling recollections. Gideon relives the agony of losing his best friend in the violence and Liora remembers seeing an Arab family pull up outside her house pointing at itand then realising that “our home was once their home.” Plus there are some memorable phrases, some straight from Pascal’s pen and others she has found and put to good use. A character talks of the desire “to die old in the place where your ancestors died”, which might sum up the desire of either community for the right to put down roots. “Too much history, not enough geography” and “Alzheimers, the perfect Jewish disease” are just two of the wry, self-deprecating, but neat phrases that sum up the situation from the Jewish point of view.

Although absorbing and sometimes heart-breaking, at two hours 40 minutes, including the interval, the play might perhaps have benefited from pruning this time round. Pascal directs her committed cast on Claire Lyth’s simple, versatile set with verve and depth, though it might have added new perspective to see what a fresh director made of it.

As the play previewed, the murder of a Palestinian baby as his home was firebombed by Jewish settler arsonists and the stabbing to death of a teenage girl on Tel Aviv’s annual Gay Pride march by an Orthodox activist were the headlines that underlined that sadly this is indeed a timely revival.

**Please note that since this review was written, Julia Pascal has pointed out this is indeed a fresh production for her, so that she comes fresh to her play as its director. The original production was by Jack Gold.**

By Judi Herman

Photography by Mia Hawk

Crossing Jerusalem runs until Saturday 29 August. 7.45pm & 3.15pm. £12.50-£18. Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, N4 3JP; 020 7870 6876.

Hear writer/director Julia Pascal speaking to JR's arts editor Judi Herman about her play and her reasons for writing it – and for reviving it now. (NB: Thanks to the tube strike this interview was recorded via Skype and is not of the finest quality, but hopefully rewards the patient and persistent listener!)

Review: 5 Kilo Sugar – Gur Koren’s tale is bittersweet magic realism

5 kilo sugar So your late grandfather assumes the role of a fairly benign dybbuk (malevolent spirit) and enters the bodies of a variety of unsuspecting hosts, mostly Israeli (as we are mostly in Tel Aviv), to gee you up to right what he perceives as a historical wrong perpetrated during the 1940s in post-war Eastern Europe. It’s not quite on the same scale of the vengeance that, say, Hamlet’s father demands. All Grandfather’s co-survivor and landsman (person from the same village) has done is slope off when the pair are apprehended for trying to sell smuggled sugar on the black market, leaving Grandfather to face the music and two months in a Russian labour camp. But Grandfather is rankled in death, as in life, and now he’s spotted a chance to set the record straight, for the cowardly landsman's historian of a grandson, Yoad Riva, is writing a book about his grandfather.

This is the clever, quirky premise of Gur Koren’s moving, funny chamber piece, which opens a window onto the past, to remind us that it is always with us, particularly in the case of second and third generation Holocaust survivors, and especially for Israelis.

This is a lovely intimate piece of writing, with a hero who engages one-to-one with his audience (it’s a mockumentary, so we're cast as a TV or film audience) that gets the production it deserves by director Ariella Eshed.

The cast of four work wonderfully together and tackle the different roles that most of them get to play with relish. Tom Slatter’s Gur Koren is indeed engaging and sympathetic and gets a lot of fun out of the surreal situation of talking to people who are being ‘occupied’ by grandfather’s ghost – and explaining to them that when he addresses what is apparently the air (shades of Hamlet again) he is actually doing a monologue to camera. Spencer Cowan’s Yoad Riva is both funny and appealing, trying to trade sexual favours for that mention in the book, and Shia Forester and Micah Banai have the intriguing job of playing everything from 'bored prostitute' to 'well-read taxi driver' and 'Dostoyevsky aficionado', most of them morphing into bodies possessed by grandfather so he can engage with grandson Gur (so playing a personality within a personality – most of them expansive).

This tale has a real feel of the magic realism of Isaac Singer.  When I saw the show, it was taken to the collective heart of its hugely enthusiastic and eclectic audience, who guffawed and cheered appreciatively in this tiny (hot and sweaty) fringe theatre. Eshed’s Tik-Sho-Ret Theatre (the name means communication in Hebrew) aims to give a platform to Israeli and Jewish theatre in the UK and encourage collaborations through cultural and artistic exchange and to promote communication and co-existence. Perhaps this is the production that will achieve all that in its forthcoming run in Edinburgh, after the debacle of last year’s beleaguered shows from Israel. Unsurprisingly the Israeli version has been running since 2009.

By Judi Herman

Hear Ariella Eshed and cast members talking to Judi post-performance at London's Etcetera Theatre:

5 Kilo Sugar runs Friday 7 – Saturday 15 August. 10.25pm. £7-£9. theSpace on the Mile, Edinburgh EH1 1TH.