Martin Sherman
Thomas Hopkins & Michael Quinn for Ginger Quiff Media and Hope Mill Theatre with Julian Stoneman for MPSI Ltd

Maureen Lipman as Rose Credit: Channel Eighty8
Maureen Lipman as Rose Credit: Channel Eighty8

First performed by Olympia Dukakis at the National Theatre in 1999 and revived at Home in Manchester in 2017 with Janet Suzman, Martin Sherman’s moving play here gets another fine performance from Maureen Lipman in a production directed by Scott Le Crass and videoed by Channel Eighty 8.

This is a full-length play, not one of those ten-minute videos made in the performer’s home that have been so valiantly created during lockdown. It has been shot in a theatre and, although it is an empty theatre and has all the intimacy of a performance directly to camera, in some strange way it feels as though you are watching it with an audience. How? Has Miss Lipman imagined an audience so strongly that she transmits that to us as part of her powerful playing?

She is Rose, an eighty-year-old Jewish lady sitting shiva, which is a Jewish rite for the dead when, as she tells us, “you sit on a wooden bench for a week, you laugh, cry, argue as you remember the dead, the particular dead of this particular shiva, and you eat a lot, and you kvetch a lot, and you get a sore behind…” The deceased in this case is a nine-year-old girl shot by a bullet in her forehead, though who this little girl was we only discover much later.

Rose was born in 1921 in a little village in the Ukraine, a shtetl called Yultishka, in the middle of a civil war. There was a famine when she was two. Her first period coincided with her first pogrom: as she tells us, “if they come in the same month you can assume childhood is over.” So begin her (sometimes uncertain) reminiscences that take us to Warsaw and her first love, a red-headed artist with a glass eye, then the Nazis and life in the ghetto. Hidden in the sewers, she escaped the Holocaust, but lost husband and daughter then, after fleeing to defeated Germany, tried to reach Palestine on the Exodus (arrival blocked by the British) before finding her way to America with husband two, to a boardwalk business in Atlantic City and a hotel in Miami, raising a son who goes off to an Israeli kibbutz.

It is a life in which Jewish audiences may find many echoes of their own family histories and that will give non-Jews a deeper understanding of the Jewish experience as this old lady explores Jewish attitudes. “God,” she tells us, “is only an idea: and who believes in ideas?” She says she learned that Judaism’s greatest contribution to mankind was asking questions that can’t be answered.

What begins as a touching life story told with sardonic humour develops into serious questioning, to exploring the confrontation of her own tradition and belief in the need to learn from history by contemporary attitudes, the realities of the situation in what once was the Promised Land.

Occasionally, Le Crass’s production adds unnecessary visual backgrounds, mainly from newsreels, to give context (but they are faint and fleeting so not too distracting) and a few notes of music are used to better effect. Otherwise, its simplicity allows Miss Lipman’s performance to shine and communicate with us.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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