Thursday 30 October 2008

Not merely personal

Memory, Pleasance Islington, London

Memory, by Jonathan Lichtenstein, is a play about how we are each made of our memories and yet also at their mercy. Veteran director Terry Hands brings the production to the Pleasance following successful runs at Clywd Theatr Cymru (where Hands is artistic director) and off-Broadway.
The play begins in a rehearsal room, where a tense writer/director (Tom Shepherd) is pushing his cast to perform the difficult material he has given them. He is frustrated by constant interruptions and is desperate to start the run-through. It is not immediately clear what the play they are rehearsing is about, but as they dip into different scenes and characters, the attention shifts and the rehearsal room becomes merely a framing device. By the end of Memory all the paraphernalia of this device has been skilfully subsumed into the action. The only reminder we are watching a rehearsal rather than supposedly ‘real’ events, is the director himself, sitting in silence, watching it all unravel before him.

The rehearsal room scenario frames two separate but thematically linked stories. The first and most successful of the plots concerns Eva, a Jewish German living in East Berlin shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 78-years-old when she is first introduced – a fact that bothers Vivian (Vivian Parry), the youthful actress who is playing her – we also meet Eva as a much younger woman as she relives the defining experiences of her life. Eva’s grandson, Peter (Oliver Ryan), born and raised in Britain, comes to Berlin to find out about the past and try to reconcile her to it. He forces Eva to remember the way that she and her husband Aron (Simon Nehan), were betrayed by Felix (Daniel Hawksford), their dear friend turned Nazi officer.

Peter’s demand that Eva share her memories emphasises the fact that memory is not merely personal, but inextricably tied up with the pasts and futures of those around us. Eva’s resistance to Peter’s love and curiosity appears selfish, but at the same time he strikes us as invasive and cruel for making Eva give up what was hers alone.

The second story is that of Bashar (Ifan Huw Dafydd), a Palestinian faced with eviction as Israeli forces seek to demolish his home to make way for the building of Israel’s ‘security wall’. Bashar is seen through his interactions with Isaac (Guy Lewis), the young Israeli soldier/surveyor tasked with evicting him and his family from the home where they have lived for generations. Although Dafydd and Lewis both give fine performances, Lichtenstein’s attempt to give human faces to the Arab-Israeli conflict in this way doesn’t really work. At the beginning of this plot’s first scene, the director gives Guy a note about Issac’s manner towards Bashar. Guy has misunderstood the relationship between the two men, and you can see why: there is no real sense in the writing of why they would connect in the way that they are made to, and the resulting scenes feel as if they have been included to make a neat point about the persecuted becoming the persecutors.

That said, this part of the play is handled sensitively. Bashar’s attachment to his home, his declaration that without a physical grounding in the past one is lost, begs questions about the role that physical objects play in our remembering. It also ties in nicely with the focus on certain objects in Eva’s story.

The framing device is a clever one: it brilliantly showcases the skill of the cast, as they are called upon to swap between their ‘actor’ and ‘character’ personas. Parry is particularly striking as she transforms herself into the bitter and pitiable old Eva, and then again into the 21-year-old Eva, brimming with love and zeal for life. More than this however, it causes us to consider the role that theatre has to play in remembering. Lichtenstein and Hands present two issues that are both regularly addressed in British theatre: the Holocaust and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nothing particularly new is said in either of the two plots, but this does not take away from the success of the production. By refusing to offer easy conclusions to both Eva and Bashar’s stories and instead showing a director and actors actively struggling with them, Lichtenstein and Hands open up the discussion around these subjects, asking questions about our fascination with and resistance to them.

Memory will probably not be a critical triumph on the scale of Lichtenstein’s 2004 work, The Pull of Negative Gravity, but it is a superb examination of human responses to the past and Hands’s production deserves praise for its sensitivity.


Till 2 November 2008


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Royal Shakespeare Company
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