‘Challenging to say the least’: AMSTERDAM – Orange Tree Theatre ★★★

In London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Reviews by Carole WoddisLeave a Comment

Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond – until 12 October 2019

Maya Arad Yasur’s Amsterdam had already had an illustrious reception before it hit Paul Miller’s pocket dynamo Orange Tree, Richmond.

Award-winner in Berlin new writing prize, it was first staged at the Haifa Theater before moving to Europe. As such, it’s a remarkable testament to internationalism – a Jewish Israeli playwright writing as if a resident of Holland, of Amsterdam, recalling its Nazi genocide history and present day Amsterdam.

Yet for all the weight of its various subjects – and there are many – I’d be lying if I said as a play and theatrical experience, I was as absorbed as I wanted to be.

Yasur takes no prisoners in the adventurous format she’s chosen to explore the appalling extermination of 75% of Amsterdam’s Jewish Dutch citizens during WWII.

But bold facts are not Yasur’s style. Amsterdam is part mystery-thriller, part reconstruction and in part a circuitous, kaleidoscopic flight into the contemporary mindset of a young, pregnant Jewish violinist who one day has a gas bill pushed under her door by her upstairs neighbour. The bill, amounting to 1700 euros, dates back to 1944. Historical provenance is certainly at work here but the exact nature of that closeness is not revealed until the very end.

By that time, I’d almost given up hope of fully entering into Actors Touring Company’s new artistic director, Matthew Xia’s inaugural, all too speedy production. If only, sometimes, young directors realised that less is more and gave audiences more time to let something sink in and be slowly absorbed. The involvement is so much greater for it.

As it is, Xia directs his very fine quartet of multi-cultural actors at a hectic pace as they hurtle through Yasur’s Amsterdam, throwing us the odd hint as to who and where they might be in that moment and which part of the historical narrative – past or present – we might be watching.

A daisy-chain, then, of associative thoughts that swings through present day Amsterdam, name checking streets, night clubs and shops as a young Jewish woman, throwing herself back in time to possible reasons why this particular gas bill – and a gas bill has its own obvious connotations – has lain unpaid for so long, the ‘narrative’ is free-wheeling yet dense with contemporary implications, particularly regarding identity, being `other’ and being a Jew.

What does it feel like these days to be Jewish? How do other people perceive you? Does the Consultant, examining you intimately for the healthy pulse of your foetus see you as Jewish? Do shop-keepers, council officials? Does being Jewish inevitably these days bring with it a storm-cloud of instant perceptions/condemnations to hang round the neck of any given Jewish individual?

Substitute Jew for Muslim or other minorities in present day Europe, as in the UK, and these become febrile issues.

Yasur certainly declares herself here as a taboo breaker, in language as much as in form. And Xia, pace apart, succeeds in clarifying the litany of Dutch, Jewish, German terms with a clever trick that sees the performers rushing, at the ping of a bell, to a mic to give us an instant English translation.

© Helen Murray, Hara Yannas, Daniel Abelson, Fiston Barek – voices recalling and reconstructing Amsterdam in the 1940s in Naomi Kuyck-Cohen’s wonderfully evocative set design of the walls of a flat and windows…

Designer Naomi Kuyck-Cohen also provides a stunning visual coup in the second half when the nitty gritty of how so much gas came to be used at a time when the Dutch landlady – a certain Resistance fighter, Ingrid van Heugten, who was absent – becomes clear: a `plot’ involving a complicated mesh of collaborators, Resistance fighters, Nazis, Jewish girl friends, Auschwitz concentration camp and the neighbour upstairs.

Suffice to say, the play becomes infinitely more accessible and gripping with a more straightforward narration but also because Kuyck-Cohen’s chain-mail cut-out becomes a wonderfully imaginative depiction of the wall in the flat that hid the Resistance and Jews in its niches and burrows – and the window through which Ingrid’s husband is thrown.

He lives – not to tell the tale…but he lives…

© Helen Murray, Fiston Barek – one of the voices imagining a time in a 1940s Amsterdam under Nazi occupation…

Daniel Abelson, wiry and passionate, Michael Horowicz as the young violinist, with Fiston Barek and Hara Yannas make a hard-working, dedicated team with a fiendishly interwoven script that must have been a devil to learn and even harder to dramatise. There are no indicators as to who is speaking when, something Matthew Xia and the company must have had to work out for themselves.

Endless scope then for a myriad ways of delivering the text. This is but one, translated by friend and regular associate with Yasur, Eran Edry.

Challenging, to say the least! But worthwhile if you can stick with it.

Amsterdam

By Maya Arad Yasur
Translator: Eran Edry

Cast:

Daniel Abelson
Fiston Barek
Michal Horowicz
Hara Yannas

Direction: Matthew Xia
Design: Naomi Kuyck-Cohen
Movement@ Jennifer Jackson
Lighting: Ciarán Cunningham
Sound: Max Pappenheim
Casting Consultant: Sophie Parrott CDG
Assistant Director: Georgia Green

An Orange Tree Theatre, Actors Touring company and Theatre Royal Plymouth production. Runs to Oct 12, 2019

Amsterdam won the Berliner TheaterTreffen Stückmarkt (new playwrighting) prize for 2018. First produced in Haifa in 2018, and subsequently this year in Munich, Grenoble (staged reading), Festival LA MOUSSON D’ÉTÉ, France (staged reading), and, Kiel.

Review published on this site, Sept 13, 2019

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Carole Woddis on RssCarole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She now review for websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.
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Carole Woddis on RssCarole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She now review for websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.

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