Park Theatre, London – until 15 October 2022
It is no bad week to be contemplating the Jewish custom of sitting shiva: spending seven days on a hard wooden bench when “you laugh, you cry, you argue” in tribute to the lost. Rose is an 80-year old veteran, remembering as the millennium dawns. She says that the arguing is vital. Sipping water to catch her breath, dipping into memories terrible or absurd, she is tartly, acerbically insistent on that – her cousin’s husband lived in the next street to Albert Einstein, after all. Jews, she says, are “a restless people, restless minds’ put into the world to ask questions that can’t be argued, and to give us the vital phrase “on the other hand”. She has – and is – a moral message, but not a prescription.
Martin Sherman’s 1999 masterpiece is an immense monologue – two halves, each over an hour – and Maureen Lipman tackles it with pin-sharp timing, humour, and controlled feeling, sitting on her bench remembering. Her extraordinary performance was streamed during the Covid years but to see it live in front of you in this intimate theatre is different, startling and personal, heroic. With the best will in the world any screen showing fades into being just more TV, more Holocaust history. This does not.
Her story is a refugee tale, from childhood to atrocity into rescue, outrage, disconnection, trauma, and a kind of resolution. The strength of it, captured perfectly by Lipman’s nuanced changes from fondness to contempt, horror to amusement, lies in the detailed individuality of all the characters she depicts. Rose drily says that like all who live through history she sometimes finds it hard to disentangle real recall from Fiddler on the Roof and newsreels. But she gives us idiosyncratic reality, a child’s clear baffled vision of her early life. The strong resolute pious mother, trading fruit by the roadside in the Ukrainian shtetl in the 1930s, is not quite as she seems but has a wild alarming gipsy side.
The father is no Tevye but a hypochondriac idler, unmourned. The village is riven with dissent about superstitions; it takes little time for child Rose to ditch the idea of God. Teenage Rose after “my first period and my first pogrom within a month”, cant wait to get to Warsaw and fall in love with an artist. “He wasn’t actually Chagall, but who is?” she shrugs affectionately. But a mere month after happily eating chocolate cake in a cafe they are 12 to a room in the ghetto. Which she sees burning, smoke visible from her enforced factory-bench job.
After the loss of her child and her man, the hideous hiding in sewers and a rickety unofficial ship towards Palestine arrested by the British, Rose arrives in Atlantic City as an American wife haunted by longing for her dead husband. An old-lady coolness relates it all, including a crazy period of traumatic magical thinking and the prudent need not to seem at all “Russian”, hence presumed Commie, in the McCarthy years.
Cruelly, the generation of Jews who got out of old Europe earlier doesn’t want to hear too much from Holocaust survivors, “not that I wanted to tell”. Nor, eventually, does her shiksa daughter in law, one of those too-burning converts who knows better. As Rose stays running hotels in Florida, too weary now to obey the pull of the promised land, the daughter in law over there berates her for not being a proper Jew, and has to be reminded with a snap that Rose’s whole family died “while you were being christened in Kansas”.
At last we find who is the nine-year old girl ,shot in the head, for whom the old woman has been sitting shiva before us. Not her own long dead daughter Esther, for whom she kept shiva in the sewers (“no wooden benches there, but God makes allowances”). This time it is for an Arab child, killed in the occupied territories, “by my own blood”.
It is an unforgettable evening: profound darkness of evil streaked with unconquerable human light, even humour. What could be grimly unbearable, is made bearable: simply because people bore it, and we need to remember. Speaking for many voices, Lipman holds that memory with faith.
Box office parktheatre.co.uk. To 15 October