Writer: Maya Arad Yasur
Director: Matthew Xia
Every building has a story to tell, the generations of people who have lived and worked within its rooms and the decades of history it contains. Maya Arad Yasur’s play Amsterdam, which premiered at the Orange Tree Theatre last year, uses a flat in the Dutch capital to take the audience on a journey back through time to the darkest experience of twentieth-century Europe, the Holocaust and Nazi occupation.
When a backdated gas bill arrives unexpectedly at the door of pregnant violinist Victoria in modern day Amsterdam, a quest begins to understand why it was delivered to her and who was living in the building at the time. What unfolds is a tale of bigotry, ethnic cleansing and resistance which results in a shocking act of betrayal, the consequences of which echo through the walls of Victoria’s flat as she uncovers the truth.
Maya Arad Yasur’s play opened to middling reviews in early autumn 2019 and this OT On Screen version does little to resolve some of this production’s issues around clarity and tension. The four narrators who sentence-by-sentence toss the narrative between them like a beachball are full of energy, but Yasur’s play is almost deliberately obscure, frequently tracking back over itself to correct details provided by another speaker or rolling into tangential narrative arcs that complicate the overall picture.
The cast roughly assume a role or two each, but they all contribute to the information provided, about the characters, where they are, what they think and the details of their life. The intent is to make the story seem improvised, but the way this filmed version cuts between actors sometimes mid-sentence can make the story hard to follow. This is peppered with Dutch phrases which necessitates the ringing of a bell and the relevant actor dashing to a corner microphone to translate it into English, giving a frenetic quality to some parts of the production which are distracting on screen.
The central thread about the 1940s’ gas bill and the occupants of the flat during the war is often buried in wider issue-based discussions as Yasur tries to draw parallels between Nazism and contemporary Islamophobia. Her character Victoria hails originally from Tel Aviv and explores her own feelings of being looked at suspiciously, especially when unable to communicate effectively in Dutch, but this pulls the productions in two slightly different directions without quite tying these two strands together sufficiently as the final mystery is resolved.
Performers Daniel Abelson, Fiston Barek, Michal Horowicz, Hara Yannas from the Actors Touring Company have a clear grip on the story, working efficiently together to create a sense of Victoria’s dilemma and the changing era of the story. But given the focus on the Holocaust and foreign occupation it can sometimes feel too upbeat, the actors swept-up in the excitement of performing and losing the horrible danger and emotional consequences of those years in a country that lost 75% of its Jewish residents.
The Orange Tree is an intimate square-shaped space so in filming Amsterdam, the audience is clearly visible on all sides with some clearly not enjoying the play which might divert your attention occasionally from actors. Yasur’s piece starts to take a much clearer shape in the last 20-minutes if you can stay with it and certainly leaves you thinking about the mark history has left on the buildings you live and work in.
Streaming here until 27 April 2020