“a brilliant piece of writing, but its formal dazzle ultimately detracts from its emotional resonance”
In February of this year, The Guardian ran an article charting the rise of anti-Semitism across Europe. France reported a 74% increase in the number of offences against Jews in 2018 and Germany said the number of violent antisemitic attacks had surged by more than 60%. Here in the UK, the Community Security Trust (CST) – which monitors anti-Semitism among the Jewish community in Britain – said the 892 incidents so far reported this year mark a 10% increase on the same period last year. Islamophobia too is on the rise, and the disturbing trend of xenophobia and intolerance is being felt sharply by immigrants and the LGBTQ community Europe-wide. Against this backdrop, Orange Tree Theatre’s programming of Maya Arad Yasur’s 2018 play Amsterdam couldn’t be more timely.
By tracing the origin of an unpaid gas bill, which our unnamed protagonist finds herself having to deal with, Yasur invites us to look again at the devastation of the Jewish population of the Netherlands, 75% of whom were killed in the Holocaust, and also to consider the polyglot nature of modern Europe, and what it means to be an immigrant. She doesn’t forget that Jews and Arabs are each Semitic peoples, and in an early scene in a supermarket queue we are made aware of the shared experience of a woman wearing a hijab and our Jewish protagonist; of the exhaustion of the continual awareness of the second-guessing of one’s identity – ‘She’s thinking he’s thinking she’s thinking’ – and the weight of being viewed as a representative – ‘Why do I carry around this flag wherever I go?’.
Yasur has quite rightly chosen to address the palimpsest of European history with a degree of formal experimentation, recognising that this complex layering of experience, these different voices and memories, demand a non-linear narrative language. The text is shared by four actors, who tease out its meaning, tossing phrases between themselves like a ball, dancing with repetitions and tangents, punctuating with amplified Dutch phrases, leading us along the circuitous paths of this city and its history, toward a final narrative revelation and resolution.
Amsterdam is a demanding watch, and requires intellectual concentration. Such theatrical moments as there are are few and far between, and seem grafted on to the text to throw the audience a bone rather than stemming organically from the words themselves. The text is king here. And Matthew Xia (director) isn’t quite brave enough to let it fully reign. The success of The Brothers Size at the Young Vic in 2017 showed that London audiences can do stripped back, and this production could have followed its example. The chain metal curtain, the chairs, the glasses; all seemed superfluous, clumsy and dead, in contrast to the living, shape-shifting text, which is its own illustration. Similarly, this is a piece in which the performers are storytellers, not actors, and the show would have benefited from less verbal demonstration. Asking an actor not to act is difficult, but less is more in this instance, and the text didn’t need as much help as they gave it.
Amsterdam is a brilliant piece of writing, but its formal dazzle ultimately detracts from its emotional resonance. ‘No-one wants to hear about the Jews anymore’ our protagonist states, and Yasur’s writing is fierce in its counter-attack. But these words need to be felt; not merely heard. Theatre at its best can hit the heart, and Amsterdam, to its detriment, leaves this power unharnessed.
“There is violence, despair and a moment of unrealised revelation, and Blair handles it all with a deft understanding”
This story of an Italian American family in nineteen sixties Brooklyn shines a light on the experiences of first and second generation immigrants, and the struggles faced by the women in particular. It is loosely based on writer Meghan Kennedy’s mother’s adolescence and the life of her big Italian Catholic family. Kennedy wants to honour the voices of girls from families like this who, both in the past and currently, have to fight to be heard. Six of the eight actors on stage are female, putting women’s experiences at the centre of the action.
The Muscolino family live in a Brooklyn tenement, and their story is told through a series of almost cinematic scenes that unveil the lives of the family members. The mother, Luda, brilliantly played by Madeleine Worrall, cooks and cares for her husband Nic and three daughters. But her family are not happy, and she is unable to cry. She can’t even talk to God anymore, as her husband has beaten up their daughter Vita, so she talks to an onion instead. Vita, vividly brought to life by Georgia May Foote, does not regret protecting her younger sister Francesca from their father’s rage, which was triggered by her cutting her hair short, and, although she has no wish to be in the convent she’s been sent to, she can appreciate the peace and calm there; a real contrast to her home life. Tina, the eldest, feels guilty that she didn’t stand up to their father and protect her sister. She is caught in a dead end job, denied schooling to help provide for her family, and Mona Goodwin does a lovely job of portraying her low self esteem and doubts. They are all caught in their own narratives, and those narratives are really all about love.
Francesca is in love with her friend Connie, and they are planning to run away to France. They dance to ‘Bee Bop A Lula.’ pretend to smoke cigarettes and look forward to a life where they can be their true selves. Hannah Bristow’s Francesca is feisty, funny, brave and full of the optimism of youth. Laurie Ogden plays Connie with tenderness and gentle determination, as the girls plan their escape.
Connie’s father is Albert, the local butcher and he is in love with Luda, she clearly likes him too, but she is faithful to her husband, even though he is greatly changed from the man she fell in love with. The two men are complete opposites; Stephen Hogan gives Albert a wistful gentleness that beautifully contrasts with Robert Cavanah’s frighteningly violent Nic. Cavanah’s performance has more than a touch of Marlon Brando about it, and the times when we see the man he used to be are unexpectedly touching.
The final character is Celia, played by Gloria Onitiri, a black woman who works with Tina at the factory. She is a happily married woman who loves reading and Onitiri plays her with spirit. The two women become friends, and when Tina asks Celia ‘how does it feel to be loved’ it brought a tear to my eye.
When a dreadful and completely unexpected tragedy strikes the whole area all their lives are turned upside down.
Napoli, Brooklyn is wonderfully directed by Lisa Blair. There are some standout moments, such as the mesmerisingly tender scene when Francesca and Connie gaze into each other’s eyes and mime undressing. There is violence, despair and a moment of unrealised revelation, and Blair handles it all with a deft understanding. The set, designed by Frankie Bradshaw, is atmospheric and gives a great sense of place and time. Johanna Town and Max Pappenhem created the lighting and sound, adding to the sensory impression of the setting, which was occasionally enhanced by the delicious smell of food.
This is a play that has a firm sense of time and place, but deals with themes that are just as relevant today. Beautifully acted and directed, it is definitely one to see.