“Chicken Soup With Barley” by Arnold Wesker

at the Royal Court, Wednesday 8th June 2011

It isn’t difficult to see why Dominic Cooke wanted to revive Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup With Barley at this point in history. Its discussion of left-wing ideas and the importance of politics in society is extremely relevent in mainstream conversation today, while the destruction and questioning of values is something which resonates across generations.

Spanning over 20 years – from 1936 to 1958 – Wesker’s play charts the progress of the Kahn fanily, considering how they cope with the war and the continued existence of an industrial, capitalist world. This Jewish, working class family are all believers in socialism, yet their conviction and preferred methods of change all differ dramatically. The conversations they have about strikes, protests and business are akin to ones which I’m sure have taken place at dinner tables all over the country in the past year.

Wesker’s writing is truly extraordinary; he manages to make the personal philosophies of the characters relevent to everyone and writes with such clarity that nothing needs to be repeated. Cooke’s direction makes each and every characters’ motives stem directly from personal experience and ensures that there is no single character who has more sympathy from the audience than the others.

There are some memorable performances here, too. All members of the central family unit are performed with brilliance. Jenna Augen as Ada, the daughter who embodies a pastoral socialism, is quiet and collected with moments of brutality. Tom Rosenthal’s Ronnie begins with anti-capitalist fervour before coping with disillusionment, and Danny Webb’s deterioration from joyful father to helpless patient is remarkable. Samantha Spiro, in the central part of the mother, Sarah Kahn, is extraordinary. She is so focussed on her beliefs that she is blind to what is happening around her, yet she seems stronger for it. It is tragic to watch this family heading towards its inevitable self-destruction.

The design by Ultz, which transforms from 30s flat to 60s apartment in the interval, is also wonderfully detailed; we see heirlooms being carried from one era to the next, as some are lost. It is a nice touch that the ‘kitchen sink’ which gives this style of drama its name is placed just below the stalls’ eyeline, out of view. Gary Yershon’s powerful music takes us from one time to a next, rallying us to the cause.

This is a near-perfect production of an astonishing play, and it comes at just the right time. Wesker never questions socialism, merely the trend which those on the left seem to set of enforcing its own collapse. As much as this play is a product of its time, it is one which has ever-present arguments and will always tug at heart strings, no matter what your political persuasion.

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