“The Holy Rosenbergs” by Ryan Craig

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Tuesday 29th March 2011

Domestic Judaism seems to be all the rage at the moment. First we had Grandma’s House, and now we see the brilliant Friday Night Dinner on a weekly basis. But where these two sitcoms suggested the comedy in Jewish family life, Ryan Craig’s The Holy Rosenbergs at the National Theatre takes an altogether different approach, considering how a sense of duty can be at odds with one’s family life.

The Rosebergs, who run a catering business from their home in Edgeware, have just lost their son Danny to conflict in Israel. David and Lesley (Henry Goodmam and Tilly Tremayne) have to deal with their part in his death, as do Ruth (Susannah Wise) and Jonny (Alex Waldmann), their two children. It is not until the end of the play, after pleas have been made and deals have been done, that anyone begins to accept even an ounce of blame.

Craig’s script is firmly rooted in the domestic, showing how families squabble over inane issues. But deeper than this runs the idea that what the duty we feel towards a community can often run at odds with the duty towards ourselves. In this case, David is unable to distinguish how a lack of compassion and desire to please can have disastrous consequences.

Although the Jewish-Arab conflict and the inherent Jewishness of the Rosenbergs are central to the narrative here, this is far more than just a Jewish play with, as Ruth accuses, “walking clichés”. Laurie Sansom’s production is firmly rooted in the familial, as everyone becomes involved and is sucked in. There are hints that Craig believes there not to be a place for religious traditions in the 21st century, as they cause upset on a personal and worldwide scale.

Henry Goodman gives the performance of the night as the head of the family, and as we watch his world slowly crumble he unlocks an unnerving calm. This role even suggests he would make an excellent Eddie Carbone at some point in the future. Waldmann and Wise are both strong as his children, offering a counterpoint to one another and each showing the exasperation of the younger generation caught up in the dogma of the old. As the mother, Tremayne isn’t overly impressive, often being unconvincing during more emotional scenes. Good support is provided by Philip Ardatti, Paul Freeman and Stephen Boxer.

The Cottesloe, which never ceases to amaze as a space, sets the Rosenberg’s living room in the round, and Jessica Curtis’ design is beautiful in its simplicity and attention to detail. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting shows a progression of time, even though the play is all set during one evening, and Mike Winship’s sound places us firmly in this house, as the sounds, spookily, create a real sense of the space we’re supposed to be in.

In creating this play, Craig and Sansom have shown a problem specific to a Jewish family which could affect all of us. It is an acute representation of people in this community, but speaks far more about the nature of what we believe to be right. The Holy Rosenbergs is a biting play, but one which always retains the comfort we find in our homes and families; these things we can never lose.

 

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