Who picks the new plays that are produced a the National Theatre? For the most part, they're not very good. The folks at the Royal Court and the Bush seem to have better taste. Like the recent disaster, GREENLAND, THE HOLY ROSENBERGS is a demonstration of the problems of writing a didactic play. This play, by Ryan Craig, is an old fashioned piece of domestic realism, but Craig needs to reread his Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller and his countryman, Arnold Wesker to see that such plays depend on character portrayal and relationships. He might also reread his Shaw to see how to write dramatically interesting argument about wider issues. Then there's the issue of language. Craig's character don't talk like family members. There is none of the code, the shorthand, that family members use, particularly when repeating old grievances. Craig's characters talk like characters in a poorly written play. The exposition is clunky and there is too much repetition. And no sense of humor at all, but less poetry in the dialogue (compare, again, with Odets or Wesker).
David Rosenberg is a Kosher caterer whose business has gone bust after accusations that his food poisoned a woman. He is trying to make ends meet by driving a minicab three nights a week. He has three children -- one son, a Captain in the Isreali Air Force, just died on a bombing raid over Gaza; the daughter is a human rights lawyer -- you guessed it!-- working on a report on human rights violations in Gaza; the younger son is a wastrel who resents his fathers love of the older brother. Schematic enough for you? It is the eve of the older son's funeral and the Jewish community is up in arms that the anti-Zionist traitor of a daughter might come to the funeral. The head of the human rights investigation just happens to show up when the chairman of the synagogue is there so we can have a lengthy argument on the Gaza situation -- non-characters uttering potted speeches like a bad edition of BBCs Newsnight or PBS's nightly news show. And, of course, we get revelations. The son who died had testified before the human rights commission. He had also called the father before he died to express his terror and the father told him to soldier on. Younger son goes ballistic and takes a hatchet to the columns in front of the house (symbolic enough for you?). There's a glimmer of family reconciliation in the last minute or so.
Arthur Miller did the deluded patriarch well over half a century ago. Ryan Craig offers a clunky imitation.
Laurie Sansom has given the play an ultra realistic production that only emphasizes its artificiality. It is performed in the round with the audience looking down on the living room and dining room of the Rosenberg home. The cast does its best with the leaden dialogue.
With Odets' ROCKET TO THE MOON playing next door and a revival of Wesker's CHICKEN SOUP WITH BARLEY coming to the Royal Court, audience members will be painfully aware that THE HOLY ROSENBERGS is a wan imitation of what the these earlier masters did better.
THE HOLY ROSENBERGS. National Theatre Cottesloe Theatre. April 25, 2011.