“The bullet hit her in the forehead. It caught her in the middle of a thought.”
An 80-year-old Jewish woman sits shiva on a wooden bench and talks about her life. That, in a nutshell, is Martin Sherman’s play, Rose. But that is so far from doing it justice. It is very much more in its depth and breadth. As Rose reminisces about her life, her journey to that point in time, to that bench, she wonders whether she actually believes in God, whether her recollections are correct, whether she’s remembering a movie. It’s clear though that these were her true experiences. From a childhood in a shtetl in Ukraine (at that time part of Russia), to joining her brother in Poland to escape the Cossacks and the pogroms, falling in love, then suffering the trauma and horror of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Nazi occupation, living in the Warsaw sewers to escape being sent to the concentration camps and the gas chambers. Another camp after liberation by the Allies, another horrendous journey, an attempt to reach Palestine by rickety boat and being violently turned away by the British Royal Navy, ending up where they began before escaping to America. Even in the US, she is always the outsider, the emotional refugee who seems to belong nowhere and finds herself under suspicion in the McCarthy Cold War era as a possible communist.
Martin Sherman’s piece is an expansive tour of 80 years of history, focused through the lens of one woman’s experience and survival. Nor does Sherman flinch from the hard questions; Rose may be Jewish but she doesn’t agree with the violent treatment of Palestinians in Israel and the deaths of children as a result. He addresses the rifts this causes in families between the escapees from Eastern Europe and the hardline Jewish settlers in Israel. But the play is also infused with humour and love.
David Shields’s design is masterful in its minimalism, meshing with Jane Lalljee’s beautiful lighting, a backdrop of colours that reflect the words being spoken. Sound design and composition from Julian Starr are similarly subtle and right on the edge of hearing, as though coming from an almost-forgotten past.
Last, and as far as possible from least, is Maureen Lipman’s toweringly honest performance as Rose. She’s self-deprecating, funny, damaged, a loving mother wracked with guilt and deeply scarred by loss. This is a tour de force of a performance, a commanding presence on a stage in which the set focuses entirely on the woman on the bench as she mourns all the people she’s loved. She is thoroughly convincing, every ounce of the hurt and pain and love and humanity in Rose’s life shown on her features and shared with the audience. Also impressive is how Lipman starts with a Russian/Ukrainian accent, subtly adding hints of New Jersey when Rose moves to Atlantic City in New Jersey.
Scott Le Crass’s direction has resulted in a deeply affecting, shocking, heartrending and thought-provoking piece, with a solo performance of immense strength, nuance and vulnerability. As a reminder of the recent violent past, Rose is also highly topical in warning of the dangers of the current rise of antisemitism and authoritarianism, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Western countries’ treatment of refugees and the continuing Israel-Palestine conflict. An important piece of theatre for our time that is not to be missed.
Rose is at the Ambassadors Theatre until Sunday, 18th June. Tickets are on sale at: Rose | Official Box Office | Ambassadors Theatre www.theambassadorstheatre.co.uk
Reviewer: Carole Gordon
Reviewed: 26th May 2023
North West End UK Rating: