Soup With Barley
Wesker's semi-autobiographical drama is deservedly a Twentieth
Century classic. It's a small play, but a true and honest one,
presenting its piece of reality with honour and sympathy, and this
Royal Court revival is as fine a reminder of the play's power as you
Theatre Summer 2011
Wesker introduces us to some East End Jewish Socialists
(and of course that's a triple tautology, each of those terms
implying the others), first in 1936, then ten years later and ten
years after that.
His subject is the degree to which these people's
social commitment is as integral a part of their identity as their
religion or family life, subject to flux but never really to change,
and how that gives them a heroism and majesty their modest appearance
At the core of the play is Sarah Kahn and her
extended family, not only her blood kin but the neighbours and
comrades who treat her as a surrogate mother and inspiration.
she feeds and supports them on the famous day the East End stood up
against a march of English fascists; in 1946 she struggles to hold
together a family still not recovered from the war; and in 1956 she
defends her continued socialist faith to those who are wavering.
There are also more domestic plot lines to the play, about Sarah's
useless husband, whose declining health makes him an increasing
burden as the years pass, about friends who fall by the wayside, and
about the next generation's difficulties finding their paths in the
And much of the power of the play comes from Wesker's
recognition that all these things are intertwined. These are people
for whom talking politics is as natural as drinking tea (and often
done at the same time), for whom there is no distinction between the
bonds of family and of shared humanity, and for whom the big
questions of social justice and equality really matter and are as
immediate as what's for dinner.
Because Wesker makes us see and feel
the reality of this group portrait, we believe the truth of his
vision and share his admiration for these unspectacular heroes. That
we know now that Communism failed and that even then the play's
characters had to wilfully blind themselves to some truths to
maintain their commitment does not in any way reduce the play, whose
strength which lies in creating and sustaining a solid reality.
Director Dominic Cooke and his cast contribute significantly to this
reality. Another revival of this play a few years ago failed because
you could never believe the actors had ever met each other before,
much less that the characters were related.
But every detail, from
the ease with which they converse or happily break into song
(socialist anthems, of course, but sung with the joy and naturalness
of pop tunes) to the believable way children's accents differ
slightly from their parents', brings us into this world and makes us
believe in it.
Samantha Spiro creates the ultimate Jewish mother
without ever lapsing into caricature, and even comes very close to
full success when Wesker in the play's final moments challenges the
actress with an aria asserting her beliefs that may be a bit too
poetic for the character.
Danny Webb plays the weakling husband
without apology and thus helps us understand and accept his
limitations, and Jenna Augen and Tom Rosenthal have strong moments as
the grown children trying to find their way without abandoning the
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- Chicken Soup With Barley - Royal Court 2011