Writer: Martin Sherman
Director: Scott Le Crass
Undoubtedly one of the greatest feats of memory you will see, Martin Sherman’s Rose is nonetheless a steamroller of a play that will leave you a little bit dazed. Performed by a single actor, it takes in almost eight decades of Jewish history in the twentieth century from Rose’s early years in Ukraine, through the Warsaw ghetto, the promise of Palestine and a comfortable but soulless life in Atlantic city. A plethora of stories, memories and reflections that sometimes struggles to maintain a dramatic momentum.
80-year-old Rose sits on a bench by the sea in the USA determined not to remember, except she does and the stories of her life flow out to the audience, taking in the big events of the century in its final year as well as three marriages, children and a trail of lost dreams. But losing her belief in God along the way makes it harder for Rose to make sense of her life while a shifting Jewish identity causes deep rifts in the modern day.
Written in 1999 and first performed at the National Theatre, this revival of Rose with Maureen Lipman in the leading role began at the Manchester Hope Mill Theatre and now transfers to the Park Theatre. And it is a very big performance indeed, one of impressive range and retention as Lipman sits alone onstage to conjure Sherman’s words. Just for sheer stamina, it is hard to imagine a more demanding one-woman show, and Rose runs at all but twice the length of a standard monologue at over two hours.
Yet, it is also one that makes considerable demands of its audience, and Scott Le Crass’ entirely static production focuses solely on Lipman seated on a bench throughout with few props and visual aids such as projection or photographs to underpin the stories. That ultimately works against the play, challenging concentration as years slip by, locations blur and Rose’s stream of consciousness style starts to feel the weight of its episodic structure.
No one event or character is investigated in any depth, so while the play travels through the ravages of war-torn Europe in the early and middle years of the century, to the opportunities for nationhood in the Middle East and the commercial freedoms of the United States, Sherman is on a whistle stop tour of Rose’s life and rarely stops to take in the view. Like a William Boyd novel, the point is to accept that expanse rather than dwell on specific events, capturing the process of change as much as the defining moments.
Still, there are many interesting things in Sherman’s play that get little more than lip-service. Act One, which takes Rose to 1947, starts to question her reliability as a storyteller, repeatedly saying she doesn’t want to remember but speaking anyway while enduring several events she thinks are hallucinations. Act Two forgets most of this to look at Rose’s domestic life and the comfortable contrast that creates a split in Jewish identity between old and new worlds, those who experience the Holocaust and those living in modern Israel, but it never gets into the detail long enough to really explore the consequences of that for the protagonist.
There is no faulting Lipman though who brings this dramatic memoir to life with almost nothing except Sherman’s words and finds a dry, detached wit that lands very nicely. Lipman’s Rose has an epic and domestic quality, and this is a performance that is full of craft. But Le Crass’s simple staging starts to feel relentless.
Runs until 15 October 2022