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 The Theatreguide.London Review



The Holy Rosenbergs
Cottesloe Theatre   Spring 2011

One of the greatest discoveries of twentieth-century playwrights was that large social and historical issues could be most effectively dramatised through small and very specific domestic stories.

From Chekhov through Odets, Miller, Wesker, Osborne and beyond, plays set in someone's home and dealing with family matters have reflected the world outside more evocatively than an epic could.

And so there is nothing trivial or banal in Ryan Craig turning the Israel-Palestine tragedy into the question of whether a London caterer will get the commission that will save his failing business.

If The Holy Rosenbergs is not wholly successful, its failings are of execution rather than concept.

We meet David Rosenberg on the day before the funeral of his son, a fighter pilot in the Israeli air force, shot down over Gaza.

A second son is a disappointment, but David is more disturbed by his daughter, a lawyer working for a UN commission investigating charges of war crimes on both sides. Some in the London Jewish community consider any investigation of Israel disloyal, and David's Kosher catering business is threatened.

On the whole, this works. Showing how what goes on over there affects the day-to-day lives of people here makes the issues real in a way nightly newscasts can't, and the more we care about the Rosenbergs and the more we understand they are wrestling with things of immediate concern to them and not with abstractions, the more we can appreciate both the complexities of the larger story and the pain they cause.

But then Ryan Craig loses faith in his own metaphor and feels the need to address the larger issues directly.

He improbably brings in the (non-Jewish) head of the UN commission to debate the big questions with David and one of the community hardliners. The debate is good, and eloquently brings out the reasons why Israel must be held to a very high standard and also why Jews outside Israel would feel personally threatened by such questioning.

The problem is that by talking openly about the big questions Craig implicitly negates his metaphor, declaring the story of the Rosenbergs trivial and irrelevant. He also stops the play dead for the static - however interesting - debate, so that any momentum and involvement with the Rosenbergs is lost and can't really be recaptured in the final moments of the play.

Henry Goodman is his reliably solid and convincing presence as David, Susannah Wise is strong as the daughter, and Paul Freeman and Stephen Boxer make effective debaters.

Laurie Sansom directs with an awareness that the play depends on our belief in the solid ordinariness of the milieu and characters, and does what he can with the debate scene that really belongs in another play.

If you're looking for a clear discussion of the moral issues raised by the Israel-Palestine conflict, you'll find it here. If you're looking for a story that brings alive the personal costs to ordinary people of that conflict, it's also here.

The problem is that putting them together does not make a successful play.


Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Holy Rosenbergs - National Theatre 2011