Posts Tagged ‘Richmond’

Three Days in May, Richmond Theatre, August/September 2011

30 August, 2011

On 30 September 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew back to England from Munich and addressed the crowds in Downing Street, giving his “peace for our time” speech. Parts of Czechoslovakia were taken by Germany the next day, and far worse happened to that country in March 1939. On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland, and two days later Britain and France declared war.

Warren Clarke as Churchill

On 10 May 1940 after disastrous Allied military operations on the Continent of Europe, Chamberlain resigned, fully realising the gravity of the situation. Labour party leaders had refused to serve under him in a national coalition government, Lord Halifax the foreign secretary declined to become Prime Minister, and Churchill took over. We are now ready for the start of this play.

On 26 May, Paul Reynard the new French Prime Minister flew to London with proposals for negotiations, leading to three days that formed a turning point in the Second World War. The war cabinet had to decide whether to play for more time and try further peace deals, or tell Mussolini and Hitler to take a running jump. There are five main players: Churchill, Chamberlain, and Halifax, along with Attlee and Arthur Greenwood on the Labour side.

Halifax was keen on negotiation and had Chamberlain with him. “Thank God, Winston’s finally coming round to our point of view” he said after the inner cabinet meeting on 26 May. Churchill in fact wanted to fight, but he was in a tricky position because he had to take Chamberlain with him as leader of the Conservative party, even if Halifax was to be left on one side. So what happened?

Jeremy Clyde as Lord Halifax

Ben Brown’s new play tells us, in a very interesting and well-focussed way. We start and end with Jock Colville, Churchill’s assistant private secretary, at that time a young man of 25, well portrayed by James Alper. Jeremy Clyde was a convincing Halifax with his withered arm, and calm attitude, with Robert Demeger showing Chamberlain as a man with reduced energy levels compared to Churchill. When Churchill calls him in early for the cabinet meeting on May 28 he waits alone with Colville, saying, “It’s now eighteen days since I was Prime Minister — eighteen of the longest days in my life”. He waits . . . silently. And this is one of the strengths of the play. The silences allow the script to breathe, giving Warren Clarke space for his brilliant performance as Churchill, entirely able to coax, cajole, or fire back in annoyance, and the quiet moments are something to treasure. They allow some wonderful quotes to stand out. “History will be kind to me, because I shall write it”, says Churchill. And at the end, Colville, talking from the future, tells us that when the Prime Minister went to Moscow, Stalin said he could think of no other instance in history when the future of the world depended on the courage of one man.

The simple staging, directed by Alan Strachan with designs by Gary McCann, manages to take us from the cabinet room to the garden with only a clever change of Mark Howett’s lighting. It is very effective, and while this play is in line for a West End theatre, yet to be determined, it’s worth a trip to Richmond to see it — click here for details. Performances continue until September 3, after which it goes on tour to the following theatres: Cambridge Arts Theatre, Sept. 5–10; Theatre Royal Bath, Sept. 12–17; Malvern Theatres, Sept. 19–24; Theatre Royal Brighton, Sept. 26–Oct. 1; Milton Keynes Theatre, Oct. 3–8; Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, Oct. 11–15.

I’ve just heard that this play will go to the Trafalgar Studios from Oct 31 to March 3, 2012.

Reading Hebron, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, February 2011

15 February, 2011

On February 25, 1994 the Jewish festival of Purim fell during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and an Israeli settler named Baruch Goldstein assassinated worshippers in the mosque over the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The significance of the religious holy days is noted in the play, and it’s also worth remarking that while Ramadan is governed by the Islamic calendar, which moves back by about eleven days each year, Purim is dated by the Jewish calendar and is always in March or late February. It does not normally occur during Ramadan. But that is not the only significant aspect of the date, because in 1993 Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo accords on behalf of Israel, and tensions were high. He was assassinated in 1995.

After the 1994 massacre, the Israeli government formed a commission of enquiry to determine whether Goldstein acted alone or with accomplices, and that’s where Jason Sherman starts, and ends, his play. Its main protagonist, however, is a Canadian Jew named Nathan Abramowitz, who is on a personal mission to criticise Israel and recover some self-respect for his own somewhat-lapsed Jewishness. His mother wonders why he won’t bring his sons to the Passover Seder, and won’t he please arrive a little earlier to give her a hand, particularly with so many guests coming!

Abramowitz is confused, manic, and unconsciously angry with aspects of his own life. He goes to Israel, for the first time, and appears before the committee, with his head in the clouds, saying that “Israel is an abstraction”. Is he crazy? Yes, but not dangerous, like Goldstein who was playing out something from ancient Jewish history. It was Purim, explained in the book of Esther. She, whose name is the same as the Babylonian goddess of love, Ishtar, forestalls the planned annihilation of the Jews in Babylonia. Those who read the story will meet Mordecai, whose name is taken from the chief god of Babylon, Marduk. These things are deep with significance, and deeply significant things can lead to murderous actions.

Abramowitz, however, is shallow, though very well played by David Antrobus, ably supported by the rest of the cast: Peter Guinness, Ben Nathan, Amber Agha and Esther Ruth Elliot, playing numerous parts. I particularly liked Ben Nathan, but everyone did well in this intense portrayal of human interactions, directed by Sam Walters. There were some wonderful moments, such as one of Abramowitz’s children saying, “You can feel compassion for people half way around the world, but you can’t feel it for people half way across the room!”

Ben Nathan with David Antrobus as Abramowitz

There is no interval, the action is non-stop, the telephone keeps ringing, but somehow the history comes through, as when Abramowitz’s mother calls him and talks trivialities, but occasionally mentions Hebron: once to say Abraham bought a cave there, again to say the Muslims built a mosque over the cave, and again to mention the massacre. The Passover Seder, with the four sons, also helps in giving a thread through the action, and various well-known people appear at the table, and one of them says to Abramowitz, “You think you’re the wise son, but you’re the son who does not even know how to ask a question”.

This production is well suited to the intimacy of the Orange Tree Theatre, and performances continue until March 12 — for more details click here.

The Promise, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond-on-Thames, February 2010

23 February, 2010

The title of Ben Brown’s new play refers to the promise of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, embodied in the Balfour declaration of 1917. The events leading up to this remarkable document are both political, and personal, and start with a meeting in December 1914 between Chaim Weizmann and British cabinet minister Herbert Samuel. Weizmann was born in Russia, educated at German universities, and at the time of his meeting with Samuel was a British subject working as a Chemistry lecturer at Manchester University. His first hand experience of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe propelled his ardent wish to found a Jewish State, but he expected Samuel, as a comfortably-off Jew to be against the idea. In fact Samuel was sympathetic, but Edwin Montagu, another Jewish cabinet minister, was adamantly against

However, prime minister Herbert Asquith was romantically obsessed with Venetia Stanley, who became Montagu’s wife, after which Montagu lost his seat in Cabinet. By the time he got back into power, helped by the good offices of newspaper magnate Max Beaverbrook, who started an affair with Venetia, there was a national unity government and it was too late to stop the momentum. Balfour was in favour, and the prime minister, now David Lloyd George, saw British control of Palestine as a useful counterbalance to the French, and possibly even the Germans, who were also thinking of promising a Jewish homeland there.

Would events have turned out differently if Montagu had stayed in the cabinet? Who knows, but his claim that it would lead to a rejection of Jews in England was not borne out by future events, nor were Lord Curzon’s claims that the agricultural land was poor and unable to support a larger population.

The designs by Sam Dowson worked well, with several scene shifts, done by the actors themselves. These, along with the romantic and political intrigues, propel the action forward, and Oliver Ford Davies was entirely convincing as Balfour, a man who was nearly 70 at the time of the declaration. This entertaining and informative play is not to be missed, though I understand the present run is almost sold out!