Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Holy Rosenbergs

Ryan Craig
RNT Cottesloe Theatre
(2011)

The Holy Rosenbergs production photo

The best plays come straight from the heart but also fully engage the intellect. That is what Ryan Craig has attempted in The Holy Rosenbergs. Although the writing can seem schematic, with the assistance of his director Laurie Sansom and a very strong cast he has come up with a gripping and really memorable production.

One hopes that this play about Judaism and its close cousin Zionism does not become mired in controversy. That is always a danger when a writer attempts to view events in Israel even-handedly. In such cases, the outcome is frequently opprobrium from all sides because the literary work is regarded simultaneously as anti-Semitic and anti-Palestinian by those with different viewpoints. Indeed, that is one of The Holy Rosenbergs' main topics.

Craig has cleverly managed to write a believable family drama, while at the same time intelligently investigating the conflict in the Holy Land in considerable depth.

The catalyst is the death of Danny Rosenberg, a British-born Israeli Army officer. The consequences are viewed from the perspective of the family home back in Edgware.

This will be familiar territory for National audiences who recall Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years, which was set in the home of a remarkably similar Jewish family just up the road in Cricklewood.

Even prior to this recent tragedy, things have not been going well for David and Lesley Rosenberg, "walking clichés" in the words of their own surviving son.

The couple run a generations-old family kosher catering business which, it is wittily suggested, served the Last Supper. The business has run into severe difficulties after a guest died at a function that they catered, either from meningitis or the fish.

Son Johnny, played by Alex Waldmann, is dissolute and doesn't get on with his demanding father, perfectly portrayed by Henry Goodman, particularly when trying to overcome grief while trying to continue his troubled life. The star is as convincing as ever with an excellent foil in Tilly Tremayne's Lesley, the archetypal Jewish mother.

Hope should be presented in the person of the couple's highly intelligent, lawyer daughter, Susannah Wise's Ruth, returning from Geneva for the funeral. However, the only level-headed member of this fiery, opinionated family has become a big shot at a war crimes commission, which is dispassionately looking into events in Gaza.

This drives not only Mum and Dad to distraction as does the maddeningly reasonable young Rabbi Simon and also the whole community, which collectively threatens to disrupt Danny's funeral if Ruth is permitted to attend. This stretches credibility a wee bit but that can be forgiven as the debate hots up.

It builds to a fantastic set piece, as the argument rages between hot-headed Paul Freeman's self-righteous Saul, a doctor and chairman of the community, and Stephen the maddeningly reasonable lawyer heading the commission, played by Stephen Boxer.

Designer Jessica Curtis has placed the appropriately old-fashioned living room in the centre of a space offset and surrounded by voyeuristic audience members.

Ryan Craig's double achievement in a play that could easily leave viewers in a state of shock, is in writing a meaningful family tale that almost seamlessly becomes a fascinating political play addressing major issues.

Those are so significant, that they will not only prove challenging and thought-provoking to affluent real life versions of the Holy Rosenbergs from North West London but also anyone else with an interest in Israel or, more widely, conflicts across the globe.

With The Holy Rosenbergs, Ryan Craig has proved himself to be a mature playwright with the ability to become one of the best of his generation.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher