“I don’t belong here.” This refrain is at the heart of Rose’s story – a tale of displacement, loss and identity. It is a gut-wrenching two hours, punctuated by great warmth and humour, and features a flawless performance by Dame Janet Suzman.
The play opens with Rose, alone on stage, dressed in black and sitting shiva – the Jewish tradition of mourning – on a single white bench. We don’t know who has died, but it has prompted her to reflect on her 80 years of life. She talks to us directly, recounting experiences that she has not spoken of before, even to her now-grown-up family. She evokes a vivid picture of a hopeful, excited young woman escaping the Russian oppression of her Ukrainian shtetl for the excitement and promise of Warsaw. We meet the love of her life and share in the joy of her first child. But it is 1939. We know where this is heading. She will end up talking to us as a successful hotelier and an integral feature of the social landscape of Miami Beach, USA. But, between then and now, there is a story …
The story is, in one sense, all too familiar. It is the story of twentieth century Europe and of a crucial period in Jewish history. But this is also a deeply personal play. Martin Sherman has not created Rose to simply be the vehicle for a historical narrative. She is as real as it gets – feisty, idealistic, passionate, quirky, courageous, funny. And the script has tremendous subtlety. There is no voyeurism here, and we are not beaten round the head with gory details. Don’t get me wrong – Sherman doesn’t flinch from recounting some of the brutal realities of Rose’s experience. But he also recognises when to hold back, when to leave things hanging in the air, when to state them simply and without drama. And he uses irony to devastating effect, puncturing the tension that accompanies some of the more harrowing memories. (Of her experience of puberty in the shtetl, Rose observes, “If you have a period and a pogrom in the same month, you can safely assume that childhood is over.”) The pacing is perfect, and I find a smile on my face almost as often as I feel a lump in my throat.
Of course, Dame Janet Suzman is sublime. She plays Rose with utter conviction, sensitivity and a delicious sense of mischief. A consummate story-teller. And she is supported by some inspired lighting design (by Chris Davey), soaking the backdrop in colours which accompany and reflect Rose’s memories and moods. The changes take place so slowly and are sometimes barely perceptible until you realise at some visceral level that the whole feel of the piece has shifted. It is so good that I suspect that even if you couldn’t hear what Rose was saying, you would nevertheless have a very accurate sense of the shape of the story. And it’s quite beautiful to watch.
The second half opens with Rose back on her white bench, but this time the stage is covered in light grey benches – a haunting sight. I’m reminded of the fields of WW1 war graves and wonder if the benches represent all the other shiva seats for those whom we don’t know by name, and are thus a salutary reminder that Rose’s story is just one of many. And I’m struck by the thought that the ‘many’ are, of course, not just those victims of 20th century genocide but also those currently being slaughtered in 21st century conflicts who, unlike Rose, have been met by an often hostile world and been unable to find refuge.
Rose is lucky enough to have found sanctuary, though she has never found a sense of belonging – and, aged 80, she feels that her displacement is not simply geographical. She “stinks of the last century” – life and the times have moved on without her. Even her Jewish identity becomes a source of alienation as she grapples with the settlement policies of the Israeli government. But, in the end, she asserts her fundamental humanity in a defiant act of mourning. This is a profound, beautiful and moving play which I wish was not as relevant today as I know it is.