Rose is by Martin Sherman, a playwright who’s perhaps best-known for his Pulitzer Prize-nominated play Bent exploring the persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust. Rose had its UK premiere at the National Theatre in London in 1999 and, surprisingly, it hasn’t been revived since, until this tremendous production at HOME. I say surprisingly because although this is a play rich in specific references, it’s also full of contemporary resonances – tragically, such issues as forced movements of migrants, prejudice and bigotry-fuelled violence seem beyond the wit of humanity to eradicate.
But the triumph of Rose is precisely that it’s not a calendar of earth-shattering events. It exists on a human scale, seeing the cataclysmic events of a century through the eyes of one woman whose life begins in the ‘shtetls’ of Eastern Europe and continues through Nazi-occupied Poland, British Mandate Palestine, America, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
When we first see Rose – a tour-de-force performance from Janet Suzman that wrings every last ounce of mischief and humour from a life of tragedy, perseverance and survival – she seems like nothing more than a slightly batty old lady, popping pills as she sits on a bench in the Florida sunshine, unseen by the young and beautiful people who pass her by.
But as she begins to tell us her story, framed only by minimal but extraordinarily effective lighting and even sparser sound effects, we are drawn into a wholly believable world of Russian pogroms, the Warsaw ghetto, the voyage of the Exodus and the birth of the modern state of Israel, the Six Day War and the contemporary war between the West Bank settlers and their Palestinian neighbours, all woven together by Rose’s story of love, loss and laughter.
But is she an entirely reliable witness? Even she wonders if her memory sometimes plays tricks on her, replacing real life with scenes from the movie versions of those stories. Crucially, can she even bear to tell the truth sometimes, so harrowing is it to recall?
Suzman is a seductive storyteller in an exhausting and highly emotional role. She’s alone onstage for two hours, and at the opening night party the usually voluble and often hilarious actress was reluctant to speak much at all, fearful of losing her voice.
Director Richard Beecham employs the subtlest of embellishments – virtually the only prop apart from Rose’s bench is a stream of sand onto the stage at the times Rose marks the death of a loved one by sitting ‘shiva’ – and the production is so quiet that audience members aren’t allowed to take possibly-intrusive drinks into the auditorium.
Despite its many moments of humour and the sheer coiled energy you can often sense in Suzman as Rose, it’s a sobering production and the tumultuous applause at the end was as much of a release of tension in the audience, I suspect, as it was a deserved acknowledgement of the sheer excellence of this production of a complex, provocative and relevant play.
By Kevin Bourke, Theatre Editor
Rose is running at Manchester’s HOME until June 10, 2017. For more details, click here.