Writer: Jeff Page
Director: Manuel Bau
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Deep in the heart of Islington’s sleepy, hippy academia, poet Bev Hemmings has published a new volume of work. It should be a welcome cause of celebration, a bright spot in a life where her father’s slow descent into Alzheimer’s is exacerbating her alcoholism. But a line in one of the poems, dealing with her observations at an Israeli Defence Force checkpoint, is now accused of being anti-Semitic.
So begins Jeff Page’s one-act play, which promises to explore the delicate hinterland between criticism of the Israeli regime and implicit bigotry against all Jews. The wave of social media storms after an academic says something with which other disagree is a timely phenomenon; Mary Beard only has to issue a tweet for swathes of the internet to assume that the worst possible interpretation of her 280 characters is the only valid one. Other academics such as Germaine Greer sometimes seem to court controversy with a provocative statement as a means of self-publicity, among doubtless other motives (the issue of why female academics seem to have their outputs more harshly policed than their male counterparts’ is for a discussion another time).
There is clearly a social psychology at work between academia and the masses, let alone a discussion about whether those who dispense accusations of anti-Semitism or other bigotiies against professors and politicians are too hasty, too absolutist in their pronouncements.
Sadly, Page’s script ducks asking some of the bigger questions in what is surely a fertile field for discussion. Instead, he delivers a snapshot of a self-destructive woman for whom this is but one mudslide as her world collapses in on itself.
Geraldine Somerville’s Bev is a spiky, wry character, albeit one whose motivations remain elusive. Even her intentions in terms of reacting to the firestorm her poem has provoked are obscured. And while this gives Somerville wide opportunity to explore the unwritten side of her character, one yearns for a rather deeper exploration of the relationship with her PA of six years, Tamsin (Ulrika Krishnamurti).
Bev’s conversations with a stage manager in preparation for a reading of her works feel similarly underpowered. But it is her relationship with Jewish journalist David (Matt Mella) which has the most potential. Ostensibly a disappointed fan who is hoping for Bev to properly apologise, David’s gentle application of pressure onto the poet’s bruised ego contains some of Page’s best writing, and performances from both Somerville and Mella to match.
It is here that, when provoked, Bev comes closest to expressing sentiments that are far more justifiably anti-Semitic than the controversial line in her poem. That tension between what she might say when provoked and what she believes in her heart is also the closest Page comes to finding a literary metaphor for the issues at the centre of his play. Mella’s subsequent monologue, about the effect anti-Semitism has had on his family, feels overwritten and too on-the-nose.
The overall impression is of a play which, while admirably attempting to grapple with difficult issues, doesn’t quite have the courage to fully engage. The difference is between a play which acknowledges the greys where black and white do not exist, and the greys which are just a colourless form of beige.
Continues until 20 March | Image: Samuel Kirkman