Writer: Martin Sherman
Director: Scott Le Crass
Premiering in 1999, Rose was Martin Sherman’s parting gift to the 20th Century, seemingly presented with a card reading “Good Riddance”. He could not have known what was to follow.
In common with Bent, Sherman’s most famous work, Nazi atrocities during World War II lie at the heart of the drama, but the focus of this story is wider. The play is a monologue, which had Olympia Dukakis playing the title role in the original National Theatre production. Here, in a recording made during lockdown of a one-off production by Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, Maureen Lipman is Rose, an 80-year-old naturalised American Jewish woman, reflecting with some confusion on the turbulent events of her life.
Rose was born and raised in a small village in a part of Russia that is now Ukraine, accepting antisemitic persecution as one of life’s norms. As a teenager, she followed her older brother to Poland, ending up in the Warsaw ghetto and the city’s sewers for most of the war. Afterwards, she fled to safety in the promised land of Palestine, prior to the formation of the state of Israel. Our initial reaction could be to think how lucky Rose had been to survive, but Sherman always questions this, and the deep bitterness underlying Lipman’s portrayal tells us otherwise.
Director Scott Le Crass’s production is a strange hybrid, possibly unique to modern times. Lipman sits in a pool of light on the darkened stage of an empty theatre and we wonder to whom she could be talking. This is not an intimate chat with each individual viewer, as in the style of the recent Talking Heads series on television, and it is not a recording of a proper theatre production in which the actor would be performing to a live audience and drawing response therefrom. Some visual effects are added, but they feel out of place and add very little.
Leaving these reservations aside, Rose is all about vivid storytelling, both in the writing and the performance. Lipman is mesmerising. Her Rose is, at first glance, desensitised by the traumas in her life, but subtle smiles and grimaces reveal her true emotions, which turn to outright rage when talking of the role of the British Government, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin in particular, in trying to stem the flow of Jewish refugees to Palestine.
Sherman’s writing is full of dark humour, brought out with natural ease by Lipman. Rose’s recollections are hazy as she questions whether a childhood event actually happened or was a scene from Fiddler on the Roof. Similarly, she questions whether her memories of a perilous Mediterranean crossing are from “that Paul Newman movie” (Exodus). Sherman is making the serious point that 20th Century history has become blurred by dramas, adventures and even musicals. He wants to remind us that, inside horrors of enormous proportions lie millions of real individual human tragedies.
Rose is alert to the many ironies in her life as a pawn in a bigger game. She recalls how Hitler and Stalin were friends at one moment and at war the next and how Jews fleeing Poland after the war saw Germany as a safe haven. Her accounts of crossing the Mediterranean will jolt audiences watching the play more than 20 years after it premiered into seeing a further irony, that of refugees from the Middle East making the same crossing, but in the opposite direction.
Available here until 12 September 2020