There are as many different ways to be Jewish as there are Jews in the world, and all of us have myriad stories to tell and ways of telling them. The Arc director, Kayla Feldman
On my way up the stairs in the Soho Theatre there’s a sign explaining that on this site stood the West End Great Synagogue from 1880 to 1996, “a sanctuary of friendship” and so there could be few better locations to present this world premiere of short plays by three of the UK’s leading Jewish playwrights exploring the great subjects from birth, marriage to death. No lack of ambition there then!
What does it mean to be of Jewish heritage in modern Britain? Is there a kind of complacent boredom in some quarters, as David Baddiel has said, that leads to an unconscious racism or is it more the failure of imagination and empathy as we may fall victim to categorical thinking and the idea of “sides” with collective values and purpose. Talking of which, what can I bring to the topic as a lapsed Methodist of Irish Catholic descent? Well, belief and heritage are one thing, but human experience is another and these three short plays are full to the brim with humanity and, whilst there are surely some that flew over my head, there are enough knowing winks to hit home.
As one of the young couple in the second play, literally a recurring nightmare of a first date going wrong time after time, asks why a shared genetic heritage makes them anymore likely to connect with the other then pointing out that everyone has a shared genetic heritage. It’s a minefield of course, but there’s also many centuries of cultural nurture versus nature and that’s what brings us together and divides us. These two are non-observant and when God/a man called Godfrey intervenes, with a clap of possibly coincidental thunder, they’re brought together by their differences. This is as it should be.
|Caroline Gruber and Dorothea Myer-Bennett (all shots Danny With a Camera)|
It all begins with Amy Rosenthal’s Birth, which is a skilful weaving together of a fiftieth wedding anniversary and unintended consequences of that wedding arriving in the form of Naomi (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) who may or may not have been induced so that over-worked gynaecologist Michael (Nigel Planer) could take a week off to honeymoon in Greece with his new bride, Linda (Caroline Gruber).
Naomi arrives from Clapham via a replacement bus service and Michael, unable to recall her mother, suggests she heads straight back. There’s something of The Inspector Calls about the visit as Naomi gradually reveals how therapy has made her feel somehow incomplete and unready for the world even at fifty yet she comes not to point the finger or commence legal action, her motivations are altogether subtler.
Michael is confounded by the younger generation’s need to self-examine, his “… it’s not as if you’ve got numbers on your arm…” feeling like a gut punch even said in jest by one of a different generation. The search for meaning transcends history and, just like the crossword he’s struggling with, can sometimes sneak up on you when you’re unprepared.
Rosenthal’s aim is to write joyful, punchy, unexpected plays that look unflinchingly at the Jewish experience but always through a lens of humour and hope - which I think is how we survive. She certainly succeeds here and is not alone.
|Abigail Weinstock and Sam Thorpe-Spinks|
Alexis Zegerman’s Marriage is next and begins with a flash of lightning as a young couple start and re-start their first date. Adrian (Sam Thorpe-Spinks) is a very nervy podiatrist from Edgeware who can’t help but say the wrong things to the sharper-edged Eva (Abigail Weinstock) including a schoolboy error about the causes of his RSI. After a number of false starts – would you Adrian an’ Eve it? – they settle into a stuttering pattern covering their motivations and cultural references, with Adrian’s Proust joke – “I thought you liked reading…” – rebounding as Eve slapping him round and over the head with acute Proustian observations.
An older man (Mr Planer again) has joined them in the restaurant and smiles at their struggle before finally revealing himself as the aforementioned God/Godfrey… he’s either the deity or finely tuned with the establishment’s faulty electrics but his intervention gives them something to react against and they break their silence. It’s deftly handled and very funny, “Jesus Christ!” says an exasperated Adrian, don’t get me started replies God or is it God-free?
|Abigail Weinstock, Dan Wolff and Adrian Schiller|
Ryan Craig’s Death is the final act and concerns the funeral of Golda Meir, a restless hamster who travelled far and who appears to die twice rather than the Ukrainian-born former prime minister of Israel. As with the first play’s “numbers” reference this is a joke only someone from the culture could make and, without question, humour is indeed part of our survival mechanism and a way of bringing people together around the commonality of a shared laugh.
Death is more concerned with other, more formalistic rituals as siblings Adam (Dan Wolff) and Leah (Abigail Weinstock) discuss their aunt’s funeral arrangements as per her wishes, even though she is only 76 and in good health. Leah is the elder and is trying to coach the reluctant Adam to follow instructions, he has the air of a man undermined by the responsibility of life and expectation overshadowed by his sister and their highly successful father Dan (Adrian Schiller).
We soon discover Adam’s struggle with grief for the passing of Golda, the rodent being a key connection with his daughter now living with his ex-wife. Adam has bought a small coffin although he hasn’t formalised plans yet and Golda’s body lies in state inside a supermarket plastic bag… as with the statements of the first play, he isn’t “ready”, not for any of it but perhaps there’s room for tradition still.
We’re played out by Carol King’s I Feel the Earth Move… a suitably upbeat needle-drop and one from a songwriter who always captures the broader human connections in her music. Carol is as defined by her creativity as her New York Jewish background yet the two are inseparable.
IThankYou Theatre Rating: **** The Arc is a breath of theatrical fresh air that entertains as well as it informs. Impeccably staged and directed by Kayla Feldman its cast effortlessly energised by the rich subject matter on display, I want more!
The Arc plays until Saturday 26th August 2023 so get in quick, ticket details are available from the Soho Theatre box office or via their website here.
Emanate Productions was founded in 2021, and the company focuses on nurturing talent in emerging and established artists of Jewish heritage, platforming urgent, exciting and passionate stories with an integral Jewish soul. The Arc is produced by the company’s Co-Artistic Directors, Sam Thorpe-Spinks and Dan Wolff along with Associate Producer Tanya Truman.