It’s been a learny, huggy week at the National. Rocket to the Moon ended with a middle-aged dentist learning not to take things for granted (okay, it’s a better play than that sounds). The Holy Rosenbergs ends with a North London Jewish father hugging his daughter and promising to make things right.
David and Lesley Rosenberg are caterers. But tomorrow they are burying their son, Danny, who died during service for the Israel Defence Forces. This is the crucible for community tensions; some people plan to picket the funeral, not because they are angry at Danny’s actions, but because they are angry at his sister, Ruth, who has joined a legal team, writing a substantial report on war crimes in the recent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians. The local rabbi comes to urge her to stay home and sit shiva; the family friend, Saul, says he can’t ask David and Lesley to do the catering at his daughter’s wedding - a contract that would be a lifeline - because it will threaten his position as chairman of his synagogue. When the leader of Ruth’s legal team, Stephen Crossley, appears unexpectedly at the family home, a heated debate ultimately produces some understanding on all sides. But he has brought with him documents which show that Danny was suffering from hallucinations and horror and wanted to come home. It becomes apparent that David, in the final phone call to his son (that he’s been unable to recall), he showed no sympathy, perhaps leading him to his death. Things fall apart and then things come together. The younger son, Jonny, whom David insults, shows understanding and sympathy for his father; Ruth agrees to step down from the report team. David will make things right.
This is a very old-fashioned kind of play in some ways. It’s a debate play, a well-made play, a middle-class domestic melodrama. It mainly unfolds in real time (there’s one ellipsis that means the family have dinner while we have the interval) and entirely in one room. Information is brought into the house by visitors who come and go without care. It has buried family secrets forced out into the open; some characters representing clearly plotted positions in a debate. It’s reminiscent of All My Sons, as some reviews have noted.
Old-fashioned doesn’t mean bad of course (hey, I’m loving the Rattigan revival) and although debate plays aren’t really to my taste, you can change gear and get interested in the debate, if not the drama. In this instance, the play gives a compelling sense of how criticisms of Israel are viewed by some in the Jewish community, as a threat to their own existence, with genocide vividly felt and passed on through folk memory. David tells a story about his father:
I grew up in a block of flats on the sixth floor, but there was a short time when all I wanted was a little dog. I begged my Dad. Begged him. You know what he said to me? He said ... what if we have to leave again? What if they come for us like they did before, like they came for your aunts and uncles and all your cousins, and we have to leave at a moment’s notice? What would we do with the dog? We’d have to leave him behind? No boy, he said, it wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be fair on the dog.
It’s a kind of story that I’ve heard often before (and Pinter says that a feeling of that kind lurks in The Birthday Party). It has a stamp of truth and feeling. On the other hand, Crossley and Ruth’s accounts of why it is important to hold Israel to account for human rights violations are well put, convincing and humane. The play, happily, does not fling the charge of anti-semitism around in a muddying way; it is concerned with issues of justice, but also of how you balance that value with the value of community, whether human rights can be protected when you have your back to the wall, or to the sea. In some ways that leaves Ruth’s decision to step down from the Report group interesting, if not wholly satisfying; if you wanted defiance, justice (let right be done), the play isn’t going to give it to you, because this is a complex situation, requiring compromise and understanding. If anything, the play is, unfashionably, suggesting that in a situation as polarised as the Palestinian conflict, compromise is a radical act.
While I’m being positive, I should say that Henry Goodman gives a wonderful performance. From the moment he appears, unable to sit anywhere for long, restlessly drumming his fingers, it’s a long, sustained, continuous performance that is graceful and moving, an affectionate and sympathetic study of a mind under enormous strain, his buoyancy cracking at times, but being the root of his human spirit. And Ryan Craig wrote the part that let him give that performance, so he deserves at least some of the credit for that major role.
If I had a complaint, it’s that it’s not old-fashioned enough. I never felt very moved by the play and that’s because it’s too concerned with debates, and with telling us how people are feeling, rather than letting us feel it in the way they act with each other, and through structure and subtext. Inevitably, I think of Rattigan and the way he will give us imaginative space to understand someone’s pain by placing them silently in a social situation digesting some awful news (Joan in After the Dance, for example). There’s not enough of that here; people get news and react and we’re just given what we’re given. I didn’t engage with the play on the level of character.
There are some clunky bits of plotting. Ruth rushes out to an all-night chemist but announces that she doesn’t have a key because of the new front door. This implausible idea (who gets one key for a new lock? Why can’t she just ring the bell?) is a way of getting Crossley into the house who wanders in without a by-your-leave. And then he stays, really making himself at home, despite knowing that the family are preparing for a funeral the next day. As written and played, Crossley was an old-school upper-middle class professional and it’s bizarre to think he’d not show more sensitivity. Saul also behaves appallingly. He has to break it to the family that he’s not going to accept their bid to cater his daughter’s wedding. He tells them this the day before the funeral. He really could have waited a week. The very idea that Danny’s body has been brought home seems a little convenient; ‘Danny was an Edgware boy at heart’ doesn’t do it for me, since he’s not too Edgware a boy to fly out to Israel and join its army. These things niggle at the play and give it a sense of artificiality; these characters have been brought together to have a debate - they don’t have a debate because they’ve been brought together.
This sense isn’t helped by some clunky dialogue. Sometimes it’s the exposition firing off but at other times it’s just rather ponderous (‘I’m asking you to find a way to avoid a huge amount of heartache that I’m worried your parents are too fragile to handle at the moment’). There are things I enjoyed about the content - and the performances are mostly very strong - but it’s the sort of play that either needed David Hare’s elegance of expression or Terence Rattigan’s elegance of structure. Preferably both.