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Mike Leigh’s new play is his first stage work for more than a decade. It was developed, as usual, with the company performing and it is so fresh-minted that the first previews were cancelled and its title decided upon just before they began. I am at a loss to know quite why he chose this one. The second millennium for most people designates the Christian Era and this play is a reflection of Judaism and a Jewish sensibility, its characters a Jewish family in North West London. For the Jewish calendar one must add 3760 years.
Perhaps he is reflecting the approximately two thousand years since Rome destroyed the Jewish State, creating a diaspora that deprived Judaism of any single authority interpreting Jewish law and belief. Maybe he is just saying that, although shown here in a very contemporary political context, the relationships and situations the play explores are perennial ones (and not only among Jews).
We are in a secular, Guardian-reading, Jewish home in Cricklewood. Alison Chitty’s set, meticulously lit by Paul Pyant, has sanded wooden boards and carefully chosen furniture, pictures and possessions that perfectly fit its occupants. They are dentist Danny (Allan Corduner), a man who still makes a point of taking patients on the NHS, his wife Rachel (Caroline Gruber), and grown up son Joshua (Ben Caplan) who’s never had a job and still lives with them.
The action is spread over recent months, with topical references to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and there is much talk of contemporary politics. The run lasts to the end of January so we can probably expect some changes to reflect any major news or political developments. In three generations of one family we see how strongly the times and circumstances affect an individual’s political and ethical development. But this is a play that presents fixed attitudes rather than real political argument. In fact, it shows the difficulty in developing any real discourse between people who come with different agendas.
Grandpa Dave, Rachel’s father, still smoking despite his chronic emphysema, is honestly played by John Burgess who exactly catches the rage and frustration of those who see the world spinning into the abyss while still clutching onto their own beliefs and principles. He was a founding member of a post-Holocaust kibbutz who returned to Britain to start a haulage business.
His daughter and her husband were kibbutzim too, and their children Josh and Tamara (who now works abroad for Amnesty International) went out to Israel as young volunteers. It is a family which has been caught up with Israel and the Great Socialist Dream but they are not practising Jews so it comes as something of a shock to his parents when Josh is discovered praying, stops eating pork, starts lighting candles. ‘‘It’s like having a Muslim in the house,’’ declares his mother, worried that she is going to have to start cooking kosher.
This is a play that accurately reflects our current dilemmas. Its family relationships ring true. We can recognize and probably identify with these characters: the young man discovering faith as a way of holding back disintegration, the idealistic daughter with her hopes in Venezuela’s Chávez, Rachel shocked by the beggars outside the Vatican, Danny still taking National Health patients and delighting in bad Jewish jokes (just wait for the one about God instructing Noah on building a new ark).
Into this comes Tammy’s boyfriend Tzachi (Nitzan Sharron), a charming young Israeli who has spent his military service bored and smoking pot. His is the pragmatic voice seeking immediate short term solutions — a fresh voice introduced just when you think the ideas are going nowhere.
Less successful is the sudden appearance of Rachel’s sister Michelle, long out of touch. This invasion of self-centred, unbalanced paranoia is intended as a catalyst, but we have already had Tzachi turning our ideas around. Samantha Spiro gives a performance on a sustained note of hysteria that could be hysterically funny but is too shockingly extreme to allow us laughter. It does not work: not because of the actress but because whereas the others have a context, she has none. She seems a mechanical intervention, an artificial device, and while we can see where all the other characters are coming from, this self-centred, money-making representative of international finance is given nothing to validate her position.
Perhaps, Leigh wants to say just that — Michelle has no case to state. I believe that when you write of politics and ideas, this is cheating, however plausible it may be in a family situation. Is Michelle’s intervention supposed to bring reconciliation to the family? I do not think they need it — that family strength is already there. Grandpa himself, despite his horror at Josh ‘‘turning into a rabbi’’, is still delighted that he’s found something to believe in. Family values are also reinforced by old family friend Jonathan (Adam Godley) — a hint, perhaps, that society, like family, still survives.
Granddad, for me, presents the strongest argument of the evening: the old belief that it is rational discussion that makes society work. We may believe in personal choice but personal choice without explanation can be dangerous. Why is only a question. Why do so many people think asking questions is having an argument?
Some of the scenes are very short and with blackouts between them to allow for changes of props and costume. The pace could be badly disrupted were it not for a delightful score from Gary Yershon, played by Sarah Clark on clarinet and Joy Hawley on cello, that sounds the essence of Jewishness.
Howard Loxton © 2005
Originally published on R&V on 21-09-05
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