A lively, telling exploration of the current debate around perceptions of antisemitism. In his timely play, Jeff Page asks when pro-Palestinian criticism of Israel crosses the line to become antisemitism. Celebrated poet Bev seems to have crossed that line, judging from the Twitter storm aroused by Checkpoint Chana…
Israel Zangwill, a ferociously intelligent, passionate champion of multiculturalism, escaped poverty in London’s East End thanks in part to his education at the Jews' Free School, where he also subsequently taught for a time. He went on to become a writer, political thinker and activist. He was the first to use the phrase ‘the melting pot’ to describe what he also calls ‘God's crucible’ – America – in this play, endorsed enthusiastically and vocally by then US president Theodore Roosevelt at its 1908 premiere in New York. Now Bitter Pill Theatre produces the first UK revival of The Melting Pot since 1938.
David Quixano, the visionary but damaged Jewish composer at the play’s heart, has survived the massacre of his family in the pogroms rife in the Ukraine, to rebuild his life in New York, taking refuge with his Uncle Mendel. Here too he must fight the prejudice and antisemitism displayed by almost everyone, from his uncle’s Irish housekeeper to the brash young millionaire playboy who is his rival in love for philanthropic socialite Vera Revendal. As the estranged daughter of a Jew-hating Ukrainian Baron, she is initially suspicious of Jews herself (‘That wonderful boy a Jew!?’ she exclaims when she finds out).
Vera calls him wonderful because he has played at a fundraising concert for her settlement project to help New York’s poorest. He’s in the throes of writing a symphony – a paean to the melting pot of America, where the prejudices of the past will disappear as the immigrant races mix to create a utopian multicultural future.
How David fights for his principles, his music and his future happiness is the meat of Zangwill’s drama, in director Max Elton’s sprightly, timely revival. It is of course the current rise of antisemitism and the mass movement of refugees from violence and poverty, coupled with prejudice against ‘the other’, that sadly make it so timely.
Steffan Cennydd is a shining-eyed, boyish David Quixano, delivering idealism bound to win Vera’s tender heart, but also convincingly haunted by terrifying flashbacks to the violence he endured. He’s well matched by Whoopie van Raam’s elegant, equally passionate Vera, an appealing young ‘Lady Bountiful’ with a strong sense of justice. Alexander Gatehouse relishes making Quincy Davenport the man you love to hate, a narcissistic, spoilt, insensitive, cheating and unashamedly racist millionaire used to getting his own way, he makes Zangwill seem topically prophetic. He patronises eminent musician Herr Pappelmeister (delightfully authentic Hayward B Morse), calling him ‘Poppy’, and enjoys matching vicious Baron Revendal’s hatred of ‘the Jew vermin’.
Peter Marinker gives intriguing contrasting portraits of Revendal and David’s fiercely Jewish Uncle Mendel – and narrates as Zangwill too. Ann Queensberry valiantly mumbles entirely in Yiddish as Mendel’s mother and Katrina McKeever enjoys housekeeper Kathleen’s journey from despising such Jewish eccentricities as keeping Shabbat, to enthusiastic apologist for her employers’ traditions. Composer Piers Sherwood Roberts knits the action together with tantalising ‘snatches’ from David’s ‘American Symphony’ in this inspiring symphony to multiculturalism.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Chris Tribble
The Melting Pot runs Until Tuesday 19 December. 7.30pm (Sun-Tue), 2pm (Tue only). £18, £16 concs. Finborough Theatre, SW10 9ED. 0844 847 1652. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk
Click here to hear our interview with Peter Marinker on JR OutLoud.
The theatre is a storage room in an LA veterans administration hospital. The date is 11 November 1989 – Remembrance Day. Three veterans of three different conflicts, emblematic of a 20th-century world torn apart by war, represent the soldiers scarred by their experiences in the theatre of war. Sporting poppies, they prepare in this makeshift waiting room to be decorated for valour. Private Leslie R Holloway, who saw service (and unnamed horrors) during World War I, is slumped in a wheelchair when Sergeant John MacCormick Butts breezes into the room in his brash suit. His voice is even louder as he whiles away the time by cheerily proving that his prowess at the piano is equal to his prowess in World War II, accompanying himself reprising rousing ditties from different conflicts, from Keep the Home Fires Burning to Over Here. His best endeavours are not enough to rouse Holloway, however, so it’s a relief when the immaculate, dapper figure of Colonel Walter Kercelik marches smartly into the room, so highly decorated during the Viet Nam War that he’s appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.
What follows is an unravelling that is as unpredictable as it is terrifying, until it becomes apparent what deep psychological traumas all three men have endured. The sort of damage evident in Holloway’s slouched form is disguised by Butts, with his over-cheerful bonhomie, and Kercelik with his extraordinary outward self-control, encyclopaedic retention of facts and glowing efficiency.
Freed’s play is an eloquent exposé of the failure of doctors and the forces’ authorities to recognise and treat the psychological damage of war, from shell shock to post-traumatic stress damage. His writing is vividly authentic and, set as an unnamed newly successful presidential candidate is about to take advantage of a PR opportunity to meet these heroes, his chillingly clever story assumes a telling topicality this month.
Hannah Boland Moore directs her perfectly-cast production with finely-calibrated sensitivity on a set cleverly converted by designer Liam Bunster from that of the Finborough’s current main stage production with the simple addition of a huge stained cloth. It acts as backdrop to revelations by Charlie De Broomhead’s superbly and terrifyingly authoritative and precise Kercelik, which reduces Craig Pinder’s expansive and wonderfully irritating Butts to a jelly, while Roger Braban fulfils the difficult role of the apparently inert Holloway to touching and disturbing perfection.
Sound designer Matt Downing’s noises include Sousa marches played by a military band to counterpoint Butts’ more informal ditties, as well as a patchwork of confused tannoy announcements and more alarming sounds as the story reaches its extreme, but plausible climax. It’s just a shame it gets only three outings a week. It deserves a main-house run.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Scott Rylander
Veterans Day runs until Tuesday 24 January, 7.30pm (Sun, Mon only) & 2pm (Tue only), £18, £16 concs, at Finborough Theatre, SW10 9ED. 0844 847 1652. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk
What’s the difference between a musical and an opera? One definition might be that in opera the drama is largely generated by the music, in a musical it is largely defined by the text. And of course there are the honourable blends exemplified by Kurt Weill's Street Scene, adapted from Jewish writer Elmer Rice’s play.
Seeing Street Scene prompted Jason Loewith to attempt a similar musical adaptation based on Rice’s 1923 play The Adding Machine. Joshua Schmidt composed the music, as well as writing the libretto and book together with Loewith for a 2007 American opening.
The storyline makes a play of two halves. The first is a stifling, all too real account of the life of white-collar worker Mr Zero, exploited at work and hen-pecked at home till he snaps and murders his boss when he is let go in favour of the new-fangled adding machine. The second half is a surrealist journey into the Elysian Fields of the afterlife (complete with swimming pool in the confined playing space in the Finborough), where even Zero and a fellow condemned prisoner might join other souls offered another chance.
Kate Milner-Evans’ Mrs Zero powers the opening, her singing deploring her unhappy life and worthless husband stark, challenging and in-yer-face in this tiny space, her emotional expression transcending what language alone can communicate. The ensemble respond with an intricate mix of movement and song about numbers, perfectly setting up the claustrophobic atmosphere of a life where people are given numbers according to their social standing. Mr Zero – excellent Joseph Alessi – conveys the burden and boredom of a zero, trapped adding numbers day in day out, incapable of escape and unable to liberate himself (as well as performing the feat of devouring ham and eggs as he sings). There’s excellent support from James Dinsmore as a believable Boss here and in the hereafter, from Edd Campbell Bird as Shrdlu, another murderer, in both worlds and from Joanna Kirkland as the girl of Zero’s dreams.
The music was originally scored for just three instruments, Schmidt explaining that he approached the task with this combination in mind and tried to create a full blown, challenging score for three instruments. “It’s not a matter of compensating for instruments that aren’t there." His music sometimes recalls Kurt Weill, but he has a style and punch all his own and Ben Ferguson (Musical Director), Tristan Butler (percussion) and Hamish Brown (synth) give a full account of the enterprise. Chi-San Howard’s movement direction beautifully fuses actions, movements and words with the musical intent on Frankie Bradshaw’s clever transverse set. Direction by Josh Seymour intelligently contrasts the two halves of the show and seamlessly integrates drama, music, spoken word and movement.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Alex Brenner
Adding Machine: A Musical runs until Saturday 22 October, 7.30pm & 3pm, £20, £18 concs, at Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Rd, SW10 9ED; 0844 847 1652. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk
On the simplest of sets – designer Sebastian Noel’s cabin trunks piled and rearranged to create levels on the set of the play with which it’s in repertoire – and with the audience focusing intently from either side, three young women and two young men begin The Great Divide. They're telling the story about a New York garment factory fire in 1911 that took the lives of 146 workers, mainly young women and Jewish refugees from Russia. Such is the power of Alix Sobler’s storytelling and the lyrical intensity of director Rory McGregor’s cast that there is little need for much more.
Sobler immediately establishes a ritualistic quality to playing out the story. Her play opens with Havdalah, the ceremony that ends the Jewish Shabbat each Saturday with a light kindled and then extinguished, accompanied by a haunting chant. Light and darkness (controlled expertly by Sam Waddington), music and sound (courtesy of musical director and composer Tim Shaw) will continue to play their part, whether for beauty and atmosphere or to establish the grinding repetition of factory work and the horror of fire and smoke. Each ‘player’ has at least one detailed identity – someone the audience will get to know and care about – as well as sketching out other characters as needed. But it’s clear that they have told this story before and must tell it again and that it will be played out in other times and places where wellbeing and safety are sacrificed for profit. The 'profit-conscious' supervisor here is represented by Michael Kiersey's Max, who works well to earn sympathy and contempt as appropriate.
It is Hannah Genesius’s spiky, intelligent Rosa and Emma King’s luminously poetic Manya that we get to care about, as they become inseparable on the boat from the old country, work swingeing hours at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and face even more hardship on the picket lines during an 11-week strike for better conditions and hours. It’s hard not to be touched as initially frosty Rosa gradually melts to the sturdy wooing of Josh Collins’s delightfully disingenuous Jacob. And I found myself blinking back tears listening to Manya telling in heart-breaking detail a story of the marriage, children and death in old age surrounded by grand- and great-grandchildren that she would never have. It’s some consolation to meet the real activist, strike organiser Clara Lemlich (feisty Miztli Rose Neville, who also doubles as other women), who did indeed survive into fiery old age, unionising workers in her care home in her 90s.
Lemlich's may be the only real happy ending, yet Sobler and her company succeed in giving back beautifully-imagined full lives and identities to these long-dead young women and men.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Graeme Braidwood
The Great Divide runs until Tuesday 20 September on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays only, 7.30pm & 2pm, £18, £16 concs, at the Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Rd, SW10 9ED; 0844 847 1652. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk
Could Pinksi be the Jewish Gogol? His story certainly follows in the great tradition of The Government Inspector. It makes you wonder if he could possibly know the writings of that 16th-century sceptic Ben Jonson, whose citizen comedies Volpone and The Alchemist also depend on wily antiheroes pulling the wool over the eyes of a succession of greedy, gullible types for whom you have no sympathy at all.
Chone the gravedigger’s affable idiot son Judke brings home a stash of gold coins. He’s dug them up in the corner of the graveyard where he’s buried his beloved dog. Trouble is, he can’t remember exactly where that is, so there’s no way of knowing how much more there is, if any. His pretty, resourceful sister Tille seizes on as the opportunity of a lifetime, with a clever ruse to use the money to buy a premature ‘trousseau’ to convince folk (especially marriage brokers and prospective bridegrooms) that there’s a fabled amount more where that came from. Her gloomy, grasping parents though, see the coins – and her ruse – as a threat rather than an opportunity, which will just attract all the wrong sort of attention. In a way both are correct, you could see the glass as half full or half empty.
The delicious Tille, (truly scrumptious, in Olivia Bernstone’s glowing performance) does indeed attract a matchmaker to her door straightaway. But he is followed by a parade of ever more grasping and opportunistic denizens of the shtetl, from the President of the synagogue to the previous owner of the field where Judke is presumed to have found the coins.
Pinski’s comedy descends into potentially uproarious farce as the villagers themselves descend on the graveyard on their frantic treasure hunt. Yet he also builds in moments of quiet storytelling – a small chorus of children exchanging moral tales. And the climax of the play even takes in magical realism, for the residents of the graveyard rise to compare notes on the eventful night when the living literally trample on their graves, in their obsession with what is transitory, material.
As discussed in the current issue of JR and elsewhere on this blog, Pinski’s play was extraordinarily popular and remained in the Yiddish repertoire over 30 years, until the Shoah, when it was even performed in the Vilna Ghetto.
On the strength of Alice Malin’s production at the Finborough Theatre, the main attraction must be Pinski’s heroine, an extraordinarily outspoken and sensual young woman, rising like the phoenix above the strictures of life, especially for a woman, in this small, claustrophobic Jewish community. So obviously in command of the situation is she, that the visiting marriage broker soon realises that it makes sense to deal directly with her, cutting out her mother, the middle woman. She is inspired, intoxicated by the coins that represent a way out of poverty if she plays her cards right. That of course is in the writing but Bernstone revels in Tille’s ingenuity and sheer spunk!
The contrast with her mother, Jachne-Braine’s (Fiz Marcus) constantly downturned mouth and disapproving voice and mien, is obviously important. The clue is in her name for Jachne can suggest a woman is not just a gossip and busybody but also coarse or shallow.
Meanness seems to run in the family, for so poor are the gravedigger and his wife that they are prepared to fight their children for the coins. This is hardly the archetypal Jewish mother looking out for her child and the money gets in the way of Chone's (James Pearse) paternal feelings too. Luckily for Sid Sagar’s touchingly gangling and awkward Judke, he and Tille do look out for each other and there is a sweetnesss in the bond between them.
Adaptor Colin Chambers a prolific theatre writer. Indeed, his book Other Spaces was an inspiration for me at university. His translation includes some useful nips and tucks, though for my money, he could have made a few more. Those children telling tales have been left to their own devices by parents who have only treasure hunting on their minds. I guess Pinski deliberately changes pace and slows down the momentum here, but this interlude of Brechtian moralising from these precocious infants (the young actors acquit themselves very well, but their characters are perhaps a little priggish) is not entirely successful. And each hopeful, acquisitive visitor to the apparently nouveau riche household rather out stays their welcome, once they have established their characters and motives.
Chambers’ translation, with its carefully-chosen words has that ‘old-fashioned’ feel that gives a sense of a different time and place, though it does perhaps feel a trifle self-conscious. Alice Malin directs her large (19-strong) cast with a larger-than-life playing style to match, which again would work even better if the scenes were shorter. Fiz Marcus’ Jachne-Braine in particular and James Pearse’s Chone to a lesser extent, adopt facial masks and find a trope and a note for their characters, though again, both would be even more effective if the scenes were shorter.
Designer Rebecca Brower’s dark all-wooden set plays its part in creating the lost world of the shtetl. It’s about as spacious as I have seen in the Finborough’s tiny space, which is just as well with such a large cast of villagers. Happily Fiddler on the Roof without the music it is not (although there is music for atmosphere and to link scenes, it is not live or specially composed, which is perhaps a missed opportunity). But it throws light on a fascinating writer and his vital contribution to the body of popular Yiddish literature.
By Judi Herman
Treasure runs until Saturday 14 November. Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Rd, SW10 9ED; 0844 847 1652. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk
What do The Dybbuk, The Golem and Fiddler on the Roof have in common? Their stories were all originally written in Yiddish. From Franz Kafka to Danny Kaye, the influence of Yiddish theatre is far reaching. Four years before the first professional production in Yiddish took place in a Romanian wine garden in 1876, one of its most influential writers, David Pinski, was born into a cosmopolitan Jewish family in Mohilev, Russia (now Belarus). He moved to Warsaw, Switzerland, Vienna and Berlin before emigrating to New York in 1899, where he lived for 50 years. While there he was an active member of Jewish cultural and political life and was president of the Jewish National Workers’ Alliance from 1920-22, and president of the Jewish Culture Society from 1930-53. Finally, in 1949, the committed left-wing Zionist moved to Israel, where he lived until his death in 1959.
Pinski wrote over 60 plays and there were novels too. His subject matter ranged from stories of the lives, struggles and dreams of the ordinary Jewish folk to Biblical themes, including both King David and King Solomon, their wives, and the coming of a future Messiah.
Treasure is arguably his comic masterpiece, revived here in a brand new adaptation by Colin Chambers. The play premiered in 1912 and remained popular in the Yiddish repertoire until the 1940s (with a production in the Vilna Ghetto in 1943), was staged in German by Max Reinhardt in 1919 and in English on Broadway in 1920. The story follows poor gravedigger’s daughter Tille, who must decide whether or not to keep a pile of gold coins her brother finds at the graveyard. Should she hand it in and remain in a life of drudgery or use it to turn her world around?
Its latest incarnation in a production at London’s Finborough Theatre is directed by Alice Malin. What drew her to Pinski’s comedy? “It’s a story of female emancipation and it has real wow factor. Tille seeks freedom by using found money for her own ends and that wowed me. Plus it’s resonant today in how humanely it treats poverty and approaches the subject of inequality. Its dirt poor protagonists are united by the same goals, being free and visible and having enough money to live. It’s really funny and outrageous, part farce, part tragedy.” Not to give too much away, as occupants of the graveyard come to life, it sounds as if Pinski’s story is magic realism. Alice agrees and adds that it’s “a strange surreal expressionist drama, judiciously nipped and tucked by Colin Chambers.”
Malin is confident the audience will share her enchantment with the “wry, witty heroine with chutzpah". She explains that "Tille is in her late teens and so poor that she has no prospects of marriage till her brother finds the treasure. She takes a massive gamble and going on the journey of its consequences is really intoxicating . She takes a massive punt buying clothes to make herself look genuinely rich so that potential husbands will consider her – not because she is vain and wants to look pretty, but to seize the chance of a better life. The whole community, especially the traditional menfolk, descend on the graveyard and demand that she be put back in her place, but she refuses and manages to keep one step ahead of them. Her mother Jachne Braine is constantly coming back with sarcastic comments, on the one hand terrified of the money and everyone wanting something from her, but on the other overwhelmed by the possibilities. The production boasts a cast of 15, with three Jewish cast members – Olivia Bernstone as Tille, Fiz Marcus as Jachne and Felicity Davidson as a town gossip. Malin assures that there will be dancing too, because “klezmer music and dance is really important.”
Treasure runs from Tuesday 20 October to Saturday 14 November. Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Rd, SW10 9ED; 0844 847 1652. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk
The January issue of Jewish Renaissance highlighted the life and work of Czech writer Franz Werfel, who played a significant part in bringing the Armenian genocide to the notice of both Europe and America after he came across survivors living in desperate conditions in Damascus in the late 1920s. He also wrote a devastating novel, based on a defiant stand by Armenian survivors, The Forty Days of Musah Dagh. Nonetheless, a century later, the terrible massacres that began in 1915 are still not universally recognized as genocide, to stand alongside the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide in the record of atrocities inflicted by humankind on their fellows.
If you walk through the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, you will find, as I did, the memorial to the Armenian genocide. If you read celebrity pages in newspapers, it’s hard to avoid the Kardashians, currently probably the most famous bearers of one of those distinctive Armenian surnames. They came together last week as the Jerusalem memorial became the focus of protests demanding the recognition of the Armenian genocide, 100 years after it began; and Kim, the most renowned Kardashian, visited the memorial in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, to pay her respects and play her part in raising world awareness of the genocide that inspired Hitler. And Kardashian and Hitler come together in Neil McPherson’s documentary drama which also plays its part in demanding recognition for the annihilation of 1.5 million men, women and children.
How do you tell the story of a genocide when the basic facts are unknown to most? How best to convey the attempt by the Ottoman Government to systematically exterminate all its Armenian subjects? Holocaust plays often work by letting the story of the one or the few stand for the story of the many, so that the wider picture emerges from the narrative. But, when no one knows the narrative and there is an ongoing story to tell, how can you convey the scale, the politics, the disputed facts and the personal stories?
Neil McPherson employs documentary drama, and to shocking effect, charting the history of wholesale killings, massacres, forced labour and death marches to the Syrian desert. Eye-witness testimonies give chilling evidence of what happened in 1915 and the cast take on the challenge of playing many roles. The convention of delivering verbatim texts proves extraordinarily powerful and just occasionally constraining.
Cleverly, MacPherson frames the events with an illustrated lecture, complete with slides, narrated with lucid authority by Jilly Bond who guides and links up the scenes. She first grabs attention with portraits of well-known personalities of Armenian heritage (Kim K for one) and Hitler’s chilling quote, “Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Bond points up other parallels with the Jews of Europe and their fate. The Armenian community was a Christian minority in a Muslim society. Many earned their living as bankers. They became “second-class citizens”.
Director Tommo Fowler steers his dedicated cast through a chilling 90 minutes on Phil Lindley’s appropriately minimalist set. Rob Mills brooding lighting and Max Pappenheim’s intricate soundscape add to the atmosphere of menace, after a brief moment of sunshine, light and laughter as the Armenian community celebrates Easter 1915 with song and dance.
Bruce Yadoo and Tom Mansfeld turn in strong performances playing the older men, from victims to perpetrators - and outside observers. One of these observers is Henry Morgenthau, the US’s Jewish ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who, like Werfel, saw all too clearly the fate of the Armenians. His writings are just one the many sources for McPherson’s thorough research.
Delivering child testimonies, Tamar Karabetyan, Siu-See Hung (pictured above) and Bevan Celestine movingly convey the child-like direct observation that represents so much sorrow. It’s all the more moving because the three also represent different cultural backgrounds, a reminder, along with programme notes on the eight stages of genocide (from a briefing paper at the US State Dept), of how the celebration of cultural diversity and the dehumanization of the other might be different sides of the same coin.
The wrap-up between surviving grandmother (Kate Binchey) and unschooled granddaughter alone would have provided a fine ending but the story does not finish there.
Poignantly, press night was Friday 24 April, the date the Turkish government placed under arrest over 200 Armenian community leaders in Constantinople, which is therefore regarded as the date of the start of the genocide. Today, most of the world’s governments, including Turkey, the USA, the UK and, surprisingly, Israel, still refuse to use the “g-word", preferring euphemistic terms like “tragedy” in the game of geo-political friendships.
While there’s all too much information to communicate in limited time, McPherson and the Finborough, where he is artistic director, must be congratulated on playing their part in demanding long overdue recognition for the terrible fate of those 1.5 million Armenians as genocide.
By Judi Herman
I Wish to Die Singing – Voices from the Armenian Genocide runs until Saturday 16 May. 7.30pm & 3pm. £18, £16 concs. Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Rd, SW10 9ED; 084 4847 1652. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk