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Amsterdam

Maya Arad Yasur, translated by Eran Edry
Actors Touring Company, Orange Tree Theatre and Theatre Royal Plymouth
Orange Tree Theatre
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Four actors suddenly appear at the corners of the yellow square floor that is Naomi Kuyck-Cohen’s in-the-round set and launch into a story contributing ideas, contradicting with sometimes just a phrase, sometimes a whole paragraph to discover themselves describing—inventing—a woman who is living in Amsterdam. They aren’t characters, they don’t have any names and this isn’t their story, except that they are telling it, but in a sense it is the story of all of us.

The printed text presents a succession of separate statements without saying who makes them beyond saying it is intended for a minimum of three performers. Matthew Xia, directing his first production as Artistic Director of ATC, distributes them among four actors, who perform four very different personalities but all eager to develop this narrative.

It starts with this woman holding a couple of eggs but she can’t make the omelette she intended because she finds the gas is off. Then there is a knock on the door. One voice says it’s the postman. It can’t be, they don’t deliver upstairs in Amsterdam says another. A third names this non-existent postman Hendri. Someone suggests it’s Jan, her upstairs neighbour—but there is no one there. Just a letter slipped under the door.

The way that the story builds up, like an improvisation, provides dramatic energy as it feeds information. This woman is from Israel, she’s a violinist, a successful concert artist, she is pregnant (very), she has taken this flat at 289 Keizersgracht—that’s the Emperor Canal in the city centre (a smart address)—information which is given, along with other Dutch expressions that need explanation, with the ringing of a bell and a dash to a microphone which becomes a kind of running joke.

That letter pushed under the door turns out to be a huge gas bill—but one that dates from 1944 and that brings a parallel story of the woman who didn’t pay it then and a weight of significance. She gets a name: Ingrid van Heughten, a woman who hadn’t been there but “down in the shaft”. Ingrid was lucky, she came back.

The violinist’s agent suggests she compose a requiem for 551 dead children in Gaza. Contemporary issues parallel the remembrance of the dark days of the 1940s when Amsterdam’s Jews were rounded up. While not being faced with direct antisemitism today’s violinist starts wondering what thoughts people may be hiding, how they see her.

There a whole lot of strands in this fast-paced 80 minutes about immigration, contemporary intolerance, guilt passed on to new generations, responsibility and indeed who pays the bill.

Xia keeps his actors in action and makes this like live drama, not static storytelling. At one point, he introduces a curtain of chains. I’m not sure how to read that except to emphasise division, but it creates a welcome hiatus that changes. This is a production in which the performers seem to bounce ideas off each other, ideas faultlessly interweaving.

Fiston Barek is the first to step out from his corner, offering an open, rather innocent personality, Daniel Abelson presents someone a little more cynical and Hara Yannas adopts a direct approach. Michal Horowicz, raising a violin to her shoulder occasionally or hugging a balloon in a suggestion of pregnancy, sometimes seems to become the unnamed Jewish musician, set apart from the others, but this is essentially a brilliant ensemble whose performances deliver a stimulating evening.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton