Watching this first British production of MAYA ARAD YASUR’s 2017 play is a disconcerting experience from the outset. The floor space at The Orange Tree, left mostly bare, has been painted into a solid mass of bright yellow. The starkness of it burns. What shade of yellow is that? Egg yolk? Perhaps it is: when the actors come on, they talk about eggs. About eggs not cracked.
I do not call them the actors simply because that is what they are but also because that is what they seem to be playing. Bright enthusiastic actors rehearsing or devising a show. Thrashing out a rich and complex story. Sometimes this process feels like a child’s game of Consequences. But what consequences! These actors’ dialogue hops in and out of characters who are mostly unnamed and back into rehearsal room discussion. Whenever a foreign language term crops up (Dutch, Yiddish, German, Russian) there is a race to one corner where a bell is rung and a translation given. Little passnotes on history and culture are delivered in the same way. It is textbook alienation effect, calling to mind North European protest theatre during the rise of Adolf Hitler. And with good reason.
Present day Amsterdam is the setting but entwined with the darkest years of that city during the last century. An Israeli violinist nearing the end of her pregnancy has taken a flat in a fashionable district. This flat has grim secrets hidden in its walls. When an exorbitant bill is pushed under her door she discovers that it is for a gas supply to her flat dating back to 1944. Ghosts from the German occupation of Amsterdam are slowly awakened and terrible mysteries untangled.
These ghosts and mysteries do not simply throw light on the past, though. They also illuminate quite how much the world of the present day is being pulled back towards the fear and violence of those times. Why do so many who condemn the horrors of the 1930s and 40s seem oblivious to what is happening now? That floor paint? It is not egg yolk, it is the bright yellow of a stitched-on Star of David.
What is so satisfying here is the subtle way the linked stories of two Jewish women are told across time. And yet the play presents as anything but subtle. Sometimes it shouts loudly for those at the back who are not keeping up but it feels justified rather than patronising. The four nameless actor characters conduct themselves with that jocular over-emphasis associated with the clichéd idea of Theatre in Education. This in itself is a mark of just how good are the four real actors playing them. And this is educational theatre of a kind. If you feel outraged by the notion of a play setting out to educate adults then perhaps you are in the greatest need. Or maybe you will be so entertained by it that you do not notice how much you are learning.
Somehow the vibrancy and cheek of the production and presentation do not feel at odds with the subject matter. It is quite a trick to pull off, and the theatricality of Amsterdam is gloriously un-British. Experienced here and precisely now, this is bitter in itself. Whatever happens in the coming months the UK is culturally, historically, geographically European. Europe lives and thrives on, profits by, the miseries it has always meted out to others. And to its own whenever it decides they are sufficiently other.
The play highlights this most keenly in moments of character. Those bite sized offerings of historical context feed into something much more affecting when the experience of the two violinists echo each other decades apart. The lengths to which those of us must go to mask our true identity who are made to feel unsafe. The fact that fear increases daily when prejudices are endorsed or even unchallenged. History is never truly over. Maya Arad Yasur brings such life and truth to all of this in her words with a precision that makes it look easy. Starlings pull off the same trick when they fly in formation.
Each element of design and movement works in deceptive harmony with a tireless, inventive and impressive cast. Everyone is honouring a text and subtext of the kind that British theatre sees all too rarely. Amsterdam is not easy to love. It demands a lot from its audience. It demands that we pay attention even when it seems to be trying to distract us. All of this works because those demands are exceeded by the rewards it gives back.
Written by: Maya Arad Yasur
Translated by: Eran Edry
Directed by: Matthew Xia