Interview: Playwright Simon Bent and actor Elliot Levey talk life in Manchester and bringing Howard Jacobson’s comic novel The Mighty Walzer to the stage

01RET Rehearsal The Might Walzer Elliot Levey (Oliver Walzer) photo Jonathan Keenan “It became a very exotic place for me.” Simon Bent is talking about the Manchester of the 1950s, the setting of Howard Jacobson’s mighty tale of table tennis, teenage angst and Jewish family life. “What attracted me to the book is that it’s about a particular culture at a particular time which is gone. Part of the book is about the loss of that Manchester. It was Howard’s attempt to ‘get down’ that world before it got lost.”

So how has the playwright approached the equally mighty task of bringing Jacobson’s erstwhile Manchester to the stage?

In the novel, the eponymous Oliver Walzer looks back on his teenage days growing up in houseful of aunties, run by his complicated mother and dominated noisily by his larger-than-life father, a salesman of ‘swag’, chachkas (Yiddish for cheap trinkets), and anything he can sell off the back of his van. Bright and bookish Oliver’s great escape is table tennis, a game where he can become first among equals: that is, other nerdy teenage Jewish boys equally obsessed with their indoor sport – and sexual yearnings.

“The clear through line is Ollie, sometime in the future, remembering his past – the pull between the grandiose ambitions of his father and the more reserved character of his mother. The grip of his family is something he struggles to escape from. The story is about his awakening through ping pong and adolescence through to leaving home.”

Leeds-born actor Elliot Levey says he found his alter ego in Ollie when he first read the novel in 1999. “I fell in love, someone had written my life! Rereading it now, significantly older, I realised what I once thought was a coming-of-age story is actually a mid-life crisis story dressed up as a coming-of-age story. It’s about a man who’s spent his life rejecting the world he came from. Then he goes back home and suddenly realises all his life he’s been sitting on a rich seam of joy and love and something he’s always been searching for.”

In the book, narrator Ollie takes readers into his confidence. “Jacobson is such a nimble writer,” says Bent. “He suddenly goes from being light comedic to quite serious. It’s been a challenge to capture that on stage.” So between the slices of action, Bent has Ollie talk to the audience. “He poses a question to his chums in the audience who are our psyche – “Why am I? Where I am?” And he conjures up his mum and dad and people from his past. The thing that cracks it open is the chance of going back, not reliving it as you were, but reliving it as you are.”

Bent and director Jonathan Humphreys are not Jewish. “It means I’m not caught in it. I can look at it from the outside,” says Bent. But Levey is terrified of being too Jewish and turning off an audience. “I don’t want to launder in public. I know Howard has felt that way. So it’s terrific to have two of the prime creative forces in the ring who sense what it’s like when they are being alienated – or more often than not, they are excited and curious by something which most Jews in the room think is commonplace, because we’ve grown up with those sorts of arguments, that sort of language.”

02RET Rehearsal The Might Walzer Tracy-Ann Oberman (Sadie Walzer) photo Jonathan Keenan

Part of that language is the Yiddish that peppers the novel. “We’ve kept some in and removed other bits. This was a note from Howard actually – he was keen for it not to become stereotypical,” says Bent. “I don’t mind words I don’t know coming up because I get the meaning from the context. But it’s a balancing act. The characters speak with Manchester accents, then constantly speak with Yiddishisms. They slip in and out of them. It’s like the two cultures coming together.”

The almost entirely Jewish cast includes Tracy-Ann Oberman as matriarch Sadie and Jonathan Tafler as dad Joel, and some actors actually from the North West, so those accents should be authentic. “There’s a surfeit of Jews in the cast,” laughs Levey. ”One of the things that makes that joyous, is that you are not the ‘Jew in the room’. Because it’s about a Jewish family, and most of the characters are Jews, it makes you free. It’s about growing up, about mid-life, not about Jews.”

Half the cast of ten play Oliver’s Maccabi teammates, table-tennis nerds to a man, as Levey says, “these utter nerds playing the nerdiest of nerdy sports. The upper echelons of table tennis were Mittel and Eastern European Jews, Hungarians, Czechs. Howard said that in the 1950s, there were not many Jewish sporting heroes and suddenly there were these guys with slicked back hair, baggy trousers, looking great and these nerdy Jewish kids could identify with them.”

So will we see the strokes, hear the sound of bat on ball? The cast is being coached by David Hulme, Stockport Federation’s Head Coach and Levey hints that there might be a game at the end. “We’ve got a table tennis table in the rehearsal room, we’re playing nonstop. We’ve set up a little tournament. There are going to be tables outside the theatre,” he says.

I ask the duo about the lusty adolescent desires depicted in the book: Oliver drools after gorgeous blonde table tennis player Lorna Peachley. Is the play suitable for today’s 13-year-olds?

Levey, who has three sons around that age, is confident it is. “My youngest is 10 and this is perfect for him, partly because it looks at what it was to be a kid at a time perceived to be more innocent. And [it shows] what happens to young boys when sex is repressed… it becomes something that fuels his ping pong.”

Finally what does Jacobson think of it? “When I began the adaptation, I deliberately didn’t meet Howard,” says Bent. I left it till after he’d read the first draft. He had a few suggestions which were good, and I incorporated them. He came to the first day of rehearsal and the read through. He was quite pleased, I think.”

By Judi Herman

The Mighty Walzer runs until Saturday 30 July, 7.30pm & 2.30pm, £8-£16, at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, M2 7DH. 

The Mighty Walzer Walking Tour runs Sunday 17 - Thursday 28 July, 10.30am, £7, at Manchester Jewish Museum, M8 8LW; 084 3208 0500.

Read our review of The Mighty Walzer and listen to our podcast with table tennis champion Jeff Ingber.

Review: Shylock is My Name – Howard Jacobson’s gift for comedy glisters pure gold

Shylock Is My Name book jacket, by Howard Jacobson 2015 Howard Jacobson was writing J, a novel about a dystopic (non-) Jewish future, when publisher Hogarth invited him to join a relay team retelling Shakespeare in contemporary settings. He was assigned The Merchant of Venice – an inspired choice that allowed him to tell the story from Shylock’s perspective. But Jacobson’s blinder, proving again his extraordinary inventiveness, is to have Shylock slip into present-day Cheshire to share the narrative with his 21st-century counterpart Simon Strulovitch, and chew over his own story as told by Shakespeare. Shylock arrives without fanfare as the story opens, not in Venice but in a bleak Jewish cemetery in Manchester, the city where Jacobson was raised. He is communing with his long-dead wife Leah, “buried deep beneath the snow”. So Shylock engages the reader’s sympathy: within this take on the play is a meditation on loss, as well as scabrous satire on the materialistic celebrity denizens of Cheshire’s ‘Golden Triangle’.

For Jacobson, the beating heart of Shakespeare’s Shylock is not in the defiant speeches he throws in the faces of the Christians who bait him, but in his response to the news that his errant daughter Jessica has exchanged his ring for a monkey. “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.” Around these lines Jacobson builds his case for Shylock in love, bereaved – and the lone parent who cannot give his daughter what she needs.

Strulovitch, visiting his mother’s grave recognises Shylock and invites him home. And so begins their relationship, played out in a succession of conversations, the pair ensconced in armchairs, cradling brandy, comparing notes on errant daughters, discussing every move and motive and most of the dialogue that drives Shylock in Shakespeare’s play. They analyse the contradictions driving Strulovitch, “a rich, furious, easily hurt philanthropist with on-again off-again enthusiasms”, and the butt of antisemitism, above all from the effete aesthete D’Anton (Jacobson’s Antonio) a rival art collector,Strulovitch, visiting his mother’s grave, recognises Shylock and invites him home. And so begins their relationship, played out in a succession of conversations, the pair ensconced in armchairs, cradling brandy, comparing notes on errant daughters, discussing every move and motive and most of the dialogue that drives Shylock in Shakespeare’s play. They analyse the contradictions driving Strulovitch, “a rich, furious, easily hurt philanthropist with on-again off-again enthusiasms”, and the butt of antisemitism, above all from the effete aesthete D’Anton (Jacobson’s Antonio) a rival art collector who has made smiling sorrowfully at his own Weltschmerz into an art form.

As in the play, the Christians revel in their antisemitism, even vying to top each other’s ‘Jewpithets’ by referring to Strulovitch as “moneybags”, “thick-lips” and “hook-nose”. Strulovitch is arguably worse off than Shylock: his wife is trapped by a stroke in a useless body. His daughter Beatrice, of an age with Jessica, is vividly present, though her father dreads her frequent absences as she threatens to spend the night with a succession of unsuitable men – none of them Jewish, of course. Jessica is absent from the novel, because Jacobson has Shylock caught as if in aspic at the end of Shakespeare’s story. As Shylock says, for him there is no Act Five (his last appearance is leaving court in Act Four).

Jacobson’s gift for comedy glisters pure gold as he makes merciless fun of the self-obsessed celebs surrounding his Portia – a reality TV hostess and plastic surgery addict called Plurabelle, whose full name is Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever Christine. And there’s more fun with names. Enter Gratan Howsome, politically incorrect footballer of little brain with the hots for Jewesses, and hunky but vacuous arm-candy Barnaby, Plurabelle’s squeeze and D’Anton’s protégé.

If you know your Shakespeare you’ll hug yourself as you work out Jacobson’s deliciously witty reworking of his plot lines. In a twist on the casket scene, Plurabelle tests her suitors by having them choose between her three cars – a Merc, BMW or humble Beetle. And circumcision is central to an ingenious if potentially grisly plotline. Jacobson plunders his source text and other authors for quotes, sometimes bending their words, always putting them to great use. He grants Shylock his Act Five, calling his last chapter just that. But even this may not be his final act, for if he is Strulovitch’s Shylock, who is to say where he has appeared before or might appear again? Hogarth’s commission is a gripping addition to Jacobson’s writing on what it is to be Jewish.

By Judi Herman

Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson, Hogarth Shakespeare, £16.99. Read Judi Herman's interview with Howard Jacobson over on the JR website, first published in the January 2016 issue of Jewish Renaissance.

Howard Jacobson will talk about his book at Jewish Book Week on Sunday 28 February, 5pm, at King’s Place.