Everything is Illuminated
Hampstead Theatre Autumn 2006
Faced with retelling the never-too-often-told story of the last century's greatest horrors, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer took the audacious risk of employing comedy, a gamble whose success is repeated in Simon Block's inviting and ultimately deeply moving dramatisation.
A young American Jew named Jonathan travels to the Ukraine to find the Gentile woman who, family lore recounts, saved his grandfather from the Nazis.
He encounters a young interpreter whose pretensions to hipness outstrip his mastery of English, a driver who is registered blind and doesn't want to take him where he needs to go, a dog with particularly unpleasant habits, an old woman driven to near-madness by the burden of holding on to memories of the past everyone around her prefers to forget, and the characters in his imagined history of his family, who come alive and argue with him over the direction their stories should take.
Except for the scenes between Jonathan and his fictional creations, the play is seen primarily through the eyes of the interpreter, at first barely tolerant of his employer's quest but gradually caught up in it as he realises it is the road to discovering his own family past as well.
And for much of at least the first half, the odd couple - buddy – road movie story is played for laughs. There are effective and entertaining culture clash jokes, mistranslation jokes, awkward-stabs-at-friendship jokes and the like.
But all are accompanied by the awareness that the travellers are approaching a moment when the laughter must stop, an approach foreshadowed by the sense that the driver, the interpreter's grandfather, has reasons of his own for not wanting to make this trip.
Eventually the old woman tells her story, and the grandfather tells his story, and both are as horrible as they must inevitably be, both all the more effective for rising out of the context of the light comedy that preceded them.
Director Rachel O'Riordan keeps things moving with a touch that is light when things are comic, and delicate when they are most fragile, her only misstep being to encourage or allow Patrick Kennedy as Jonathan to take the lazy shortcut to playing a Jewish New Yorker - that is, to do a bad Woody Allen imitation throughout.
Craig Parkinson walks the tightrope of making the interpreter a bit of a clown without ever losing his humanity, while David Ryall's gruffness as the grandfather makes his ultimate vulnerability all the more touching.
Gemma Jones plays the old woman with a masterful delicacy and the awareness that the tale she must tell will be all the more effective when told plainly and simply. Denise Gough supports in a half-dozen small roles, notably the imagined ancestor whose experience anticipated the atrocities to follow.
As usual in this North London theatre, the set (designer Anthony Lamble) and physical production are impressive, contributing quietly and significantly to the play's success.
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Review of Everything Is Illuminated - Hampstead Theatre 2006