JLife’s Elaine Bermitz reviews the Jewish Theatre Company’s production of Neil Simon’s California Suite and a new production of The Merchant of Venice by Tracey-Ann Oberman.
The community’s beloved Jewish Theatre Company provided a much-needed evening of entertainment this March when they performed Neil Simon’s California Suite in a new theatre called The Empty Space near Salford Quays. It was good to see the theatre full on the night I went; a sign perhaps that good entertainment can survive events like COVID-19 and the cost of living.
A little lower key than his more famous Plaza Suite, California Suite presents the audience with the stories of four different couples who were staying in room 203 of a particular hotel in a summer season in California. Four separate playlets, four separate scenarios, and four very different presentations. The first, a divorcing couple discuss their differing plans for their daughter, neither are fully able to take or relinquish responsibility for her, or indeed to finish off their marriage. We see sharp exchanges from smart New Yorker Hannah, (Liz Reuben), prevarication, weakness, and self-indulgence from William (Julian Kosky).
In scene two Jaysen Lewin and Deborah Loofe play a husband trying to hide a very embarrassing secret from his wife. Her resentment at his family and his defensiveness cover up the truth – which is already known to the audience – and make for quick thinking from him and languid suspicion from her. Ending with her inevitable discovery of a hooker in his bed, the scene descends into chaos and feeble excuses.
After the interval two leading lights of the JTC, Deborah Finley and Howard Glass, superbly demonstrate how a brittle actress’s disappointment at the Oscars destroys her fragile ego, leading her to accuse everyone around her – including her long-suffering husband – of treachery, in an attempt to bring them all down with her. A masterclass of good writing, timing, and excellent accents, they showed how with the wrong temperament, disappointment can turn into self-destruction in an instant. The last scene, more farcical that the others, had at its heart the frustrations of two couples whose friendship is strained by sustained exposure to one another’s company. Friends before their holiday, an accident on the tennis court, ends, not in apology but comic violence, as the two husbands fight over who is at fault and one another’s shortcomings.
The strength in performing a Neil Simon play is adherence to the text. All the cast has to do is to rely on the words of a masterful writer who can change the sense of a scene in a sentence, along with precise direction from Stacey Friedman this is what the actors did, thus another triumph for the Jewish Theatre company was born.
Tracy-Ann Oberman’s rewrite of the original Merchant of Venice has all the hallmarks of a modern Jewish classic. Dealing with a far more serious subject than ‘Oliver” or “Fiddler on the Roof”. It reflects
Shakespeare’s understanding that the Jews of the Middle Ages were first prevented from partaking in mainstream commerce, then reduced to moneylending as an occupation, and finally reviled and exiled
by those who could not repay their debts. It uses the words of the bard and reflects them against the words of Mosley in 1936.
The Home Theatre play used a film backdrop of the 1936 marches at Holbeck Moor in Leeds and Cable Street in London specifically orchestrated by Mosley, leader of the British Fascist Party, to stir up Jew
hatred among the Black and working-class people among whom they lived. Each character has a dual role, playing both the Shakespearian character and the modern day archetype they represent.
Hannah Morrish plays the Shakespearian Portia, the dispenser of justice in the play, as a pre-war Nancy Mitford, a privileged aristocratic Aryan whose sense of entitlement knows no bounds. As the play progresses, Bassanio borrows from Antonio to woo the wealthy Portia. His modern-day counterpart Arragon causes Bassanio to stir up anti-Jewish sentiment anywhere he can and Portia aspires only to marry someone of her class. Antonio borrows from the vengeful Shylock who asks for a pound of flesh if he cannot repay the loan and the die is cast. Antonio’s ships fail to come in, Bassanio cannot pay Shylock
without Antonio’s money and Antonio is forced to forfeit the fateful pound of flesh. Yes, there is revenge on Shylocks part, but what Oberman clearly asks is: “What else can Shylock do?” Excluded from society,
taunted, and spat upon by its leaders and reduced to moneylending to his/her tormentors, is he not driven to demand his/ her forfeit?
In modern times the parallels fit exactly. The Jews are thrown out of Russia, tormented in Germany and reviled in England. The fascists see their chances and stir up hatred by planning marches, demonising the victims. But here the plays diverge. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s Shylock is deprived of his victory. In 1936 the working class, the people of colour, and immigrants unite against the deadly fascist
threat which became a reality in Germany just three years later and defeat them.
All credit to Ms Oberman, for taking a difficult and widely forgotten piece of British history and connecting it to a play written 400 years earlier, highlighting the twentieth century’s closest brush with
fascism in our illustrious history. Events in Germany and Europe demonstrate how disastrous life would have been had Cable Street and the similar unchronicled demonstrations in the Northern towns
of Hull, Leeds, and Manchester been successful.
Raymond Coulthard’s sinister Bassanio threatens, Hannah Morrish’s Portia infuriates, but Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Shylock masterfully moves from victimhood through vengeance to mournfulness to a
return to defiance in a performance that surely deserves a long, long run, preferably in the West End.