While Tony Kushner's Millennial "gay fantasia" Angels in America, currently revived at the National Theatre, spreads its epic state of the nation (i.e. USA) piece over two long parts (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika), Sherman's 1999 play puts the history of the Jews worldwide in the twentieth century into the mouth of a single person over two and a half hours.
The play hits home in the opening paragraph with a bullet in the head, literally and figuratively, with a shocking and harrowing revelation, but what exactly it reveals doesn't become clear for more than two hours. However, the lights then brighten on 80-year-old Rose as a witty and wise woman, popping pills and drinking water to please the doctors, another ailing old lady easy to pass by and ignore, but her story is that of the twentieth century across Europe and America.
She speaks of growing up in Ukraine during the Russian pogroms, jealous when her brother marries and moves to Warsaw and then eventually following him there, where she marries and has a child. However the Nazis arrive and she is moved into the ghetto, managing to survive by getting a factory job and escaping the transports by hiding in the sewers. The rest of her family aren't so fortunate.
When the Allies arrive, she becomes a displaced person in a camp, managing to get on a transport to Palestine but foiled by the British who want to hold onto that territory for themselves. And so to America, another husband and child and management of a hotel.
Her son ends up in the new Israel where Hebrew has been revived and they look down on their Yiddish-speaking forebears and their tales of suffering as old fashioned and backward-looking. Her grandson ends up as one of the Jewish settlers on the West Bank, persecuting the indigenous Arab population—her experiences make it difficult for her to sympathise with her own family in such a situation.
The above are just a few edited highlights as there is a huge amount of information in this lengthy monologue. A lot of it is told with warm Jewish humour that draws you in and carries you along, then there are moments that are so horrific it is difficult to tear yourself away, but it is linked with a lot of pure information that may not always hold the attention. It's a play that feels important with information that we should all know, but there is far too much to take in on one sitting.
The real triumph is the clever way that opening line is resolved—like Wagner's "Tristan Chord"—right at the end both by revealing its meaning and by showing the West Bank situation as a parallel to all of the oppression Rose has suffered, but this time with the Israelis as the oppressors.
Janet Suzman gives a wonderful performance as Rose. It's just one woman sat still telling a story, but she gives it such life and warmth with lots of humour and no sign of bitterness.
She tells a story that we all should know as it is all our history, not just that of the Jews, written and performed with flashes of brilliance and great skill, but it is too long to keep the attention for the full two and a half hours.
Reviewer: David Chadderton