Suzman superb in touching portrait

Reporter: Paul Genty
Date published: 01 June 2017


HOME, Manchester, to Saturday, June 10)

PLAYWRIGHT Martin Sherman, he of “Bent” and “Madhouse in Goa” fame, lives in London but frequently sees his works presented in his native America.

Curiously enough, this very Jewish work brought great praise in its National Theatre premiere almost two decades ago, but saw little more than a “so what?” from Broadway critics when it opened in New York.

Then again, the subject is a general trawl through 80 years of modern Jewish history, from pogroms in Ukraine to the partial abandonment of Yiddish culture by modern Israelis.

But it's not at all heavy or worthy, related through the experiences of 80-year-old Rose as she sits mourning a loved one, in a monologue packed with dark times and Jewish humour, helped by a beautiful, and beautifully simple, set design (Simon Kenny, with lighting by Chris Davey).

It also helps that the solo voice in question is that of the epic Janet Suzman, too long away from the stage, of which more in a moment.

Rose’s life seems extraordinary — raised near what is now Chernobyl, later trapped in the Warsaw ghetto, endured terrible deprivation and loss, escaped to France then to Palestine, but turned back at the border by the British. And that’s just act one.

Act two is lighter, detailing her marriage to an American sailor, her move into the hotel business, the loss of her husband, her affair with a man half her age and finally moving to Miami and visiting her family in Israel, who represent the modern Jewish experience.

The significance of all this adventure is that Rose never truly belongs anywhere, and while her story seems extraordinary, it is no more so than that of hundreds of thousands of other Jewish escapees from deprivation and persecution in pre-war Europe.

Maybe that’s why it wasn’t seen as particularly special by the Jewish theatregoers of New York.

Sherman could reasonably have cut the running time by 15-20 minutes, but what isn’t in doubt in this major revival is the eloquence of his writing, brought to life by Suzman in a wonderfully engaging masterclass as she merely sits on a bench and talks, word perfect and with great depth, humour and intimacy, across two one-hour stints.

A lesser actress might play more to the audience, but in Richard Beecham’s stunningly simple production, Suzman relies on the words and just talks. The result is staggeringly powerful and funny. Catch it if you can.