“Rose” at Ambassadors Theatre
Neil Dowden in the West End
29 May 2023
Martin Sherman – best known for his play Bent about the persecution of gay men by the Nazis – returned to the period of the Holocaust in his 1999 monodrama Rose, but as part of a Jewish perspective of twentieth-century history. Originally written for American star Olympia Dukakis, it premiered at the National Theatre before going to Broadway. During the Covid-enforced closure of theatres in 2020, Maureen Lipman performed the piece online, her version being broadcast later by Sky Arts. Lipman then played it in front of a live audience at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester, before taking it to Park Theatre in north London last year. Now she is resurrecting the title role in a West End transfer at Ambassadors Theatre.
Of course some of the intimacy of the previous theatres has been lost, but the Ambassadors is one of the smallest in the West End (with a capacity of 450) – and Lipman succeeds brilliantly in retaining the play’s conversational tone while engrossing a larger audience for two and a quarter hours even though she is seated the whole time on a spare set with just a few props. It’s a superbly controlled performance that relies on minimal physical gestures, fleeting facial expressions, and beautifully modulated vocal delivery to tell the extraordinary story of an ordinary woman spanning eight decades and three continents – words are all in a survivor’s testimony.
Rose is “sitting shiva” – the Jewish ritual of mourning paying respects to loved ones who have died. She vividly recalls: “The bullet struck her forehead. It caught her in the middle of a thought. She was nine.” We later find out this is her own daughter murdered during the Second World War – but also in a twist near the end it refers to a Palestinian child killed by the Israel security forces on the West Bank. On the cusp of the twentieth century, 80-year-old Rose summons her fading memory to bring back to life the people, places, and events that still haunt her.
Born into poverty, she is raised by a hypochondriac father and a “martyr” mother in a shtetl in Soviet-dominated Ukraine that is attacked by anti-Semitic Cossacks. Later she follows her married sister to Warsaw where she meets her own husband, a struggling artist with red hair and one glass eye, with whom she has a daughter – but she loses both after the Nazi invasion of Poland turns Warsaw into a horrendous, prison-like ghetto. Somehow evading being sent to a concentration camp, Rose survives the war and travels to France where she boards a ship called Exodus bound for Palestine, but it is forcibly turned away by the British who are now restricting Jewish immigration there under their Mandate.
However, on board Rose meets a clumsy, Yiddish-speaking American sailor who becomes her second husband after they travel to the States where they run a deckchair business in Atlantic City, until he dies. Although now safe, Rose is not warmly welcomed as even the American Jewish community there do not want to be reminded of the wartime horrors that took place on the other side of the ocean. Financially she thrives, running a Jewish hotel and moving to Miami, but she is widowed for a third time. Meantime her son has emigrated to Israel but Rose’s optimism about this promised land of milk and honey is soured when the Israeli government acts aggressively towards Palestinians. Her settlement-supporting, Jewish convert daughter-in-law even suggests that the horrified Rose is no longer a Jew.
Seen from one woman’s subjective perspective – but certainly not through rose-tinted spectacles – Sherman’s play touches on big themes of remembrance, heritage, and identity, as well as topical issues of migration, asylum-seeking, and antisemitism, while the line “The Ukraine! Why would anyone want it?” strikes a bitterly ironic note today. According to Rose, “Judaism’s greatest contribution to mankind was asking questions that cannot be answered.” She herself has long given up on God manifesting the truth about the human condition, or intervening to prevent innocent people suffering.
But the work also includes a surprising amount of humour – albeit often very dark, even of the gallows type – which Rose uses to distance herself from pain, such as “I suppose if you have your first period and your first pogrom within the same month, you can safely assume childhood is over.” Although her ironic detachment is betrayed by occasional stress-related struggles to breathe, she quips, “Nowadays, breathing is one of the few pleasures I have left.” On a lighter note, the Eastern European diaspora makes Atlantic City seem like “Warsaw on the sea”, while there are a number of self-deprecating Jewish jokes, nailed precisely by Lipman who made her reputation as a comic actress.
Rose eschews any heightened drama in favour of understated narrative which is full of emotion without being sentimental, as the protagonist’s anecdotal reminiscences give personal insights into huge historical events, superbly voiced by the 77-year-old Lipman. Her American accent with Eastern European undertones reveals Rose’s multicultural background. She is perennially an outsider who does not feel she belongs anywhere, just as her sense of the present is always coloured by past trauma that is indelibly mixed with her deep-rooted attachment to “the Old Country”. The Jewish mythological dybbuk is evoked when Rose talks about her first husband’s spirit possessing her, with Lipman eventually casting him out and upwards with her arms. And she accompanies Rose’s recurring phrase “on the other hand” with a distinctive hand movement that drolly indicates the complexities of human life.
Director Scott Le Crass wisely does not try to introduce any stage business that will distract from Rose’s story. David Shields’s stripped-down design features a simple wooden bench that Rose sits on by the corner of a building. Jane Lalljee’s constantly changing multi-coloured lighting signals shifts in mood and changes in scene, backed by a subtle sound design and score from Julian Starr. This is a show that requires considerable concentration from the audience over quite a long time but is well worth the effort.