FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by Matthew Xia for his company ATC, it’s designed with a few minimal props by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen, with movement by Jennifer Jackson and lit by Ciaran Cunningham. Sound’s by Max Pappenheim.
‘She, umm.. what do they call it? She uh…’ ‘Took a bite out of Amsterdam.’ ‘Took a bite out of Amsterdam. Right; like it was some sort of omelette -’
Someone can’t make an omelette. The cooker won’t light because a gas bill from 1944 hasn’t been paid, and it’s accumulated. Who won’t pay it? Why did the owner in 1944 refuse? Why has the unnamed Israeli composer-violinist had a bill shoved under her door by old Jan who lives upstairs, who’s bought his cigars from the same tobacconists for 50, 60 years? And why having heaved himself down and upstairs, doesn’t he stay? Nine months pregnant, she can’t chase him.
There’s a knock. But postmen don’t knock in Amsterdam. Maya Arad Yasur’s 2018 Amsterdam takes (here, four) actors who fire back interrogatives and repeat an airborne choreography of the same phrases. They’re not what you’d expect: naturally when you repeat something you’re nagging to a truth.
Certainly not in this liberal, egalitarian eponymous city: where you pay your taxes whatever happens to you. And who was the mysterious Mevrouw van Heugten? Jewish? No, it transpires she’s a resistance member, one who came back from Auschwitz. And her husband? Who was this other woman he wanted to save, what limits would he go to?
Despite its apparent sparseness and 80-minute span, this work’s packed, or pocked with history. You could say the protagonist’s played by Michal Horowicz but all four actors – Daniel Abelson spouting anti-Semitism, inhabiting Meneer van Heugten, Fiston Barek who wounds his own innocence with questions, Hara Yannis who bounces off Horowicz with a nagging common sense – are both chorus and fluid characters.
At one point Abelson’s Queen Wilhemina intones a stately thanks to Amsterdam for its ‘steadfast, valiant, compassionate’ defiance in protesting against the deportation of Jews in February 1941. Underneath a filament of physical comedy, this play sucker-punches again and again.
Amsterdam is directed by Matthew Xia for his company ATC, designed with a few minimal props including en emblematic net and leftover German Erika typewriter, by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen. In such minimal space the crucial movement’s by Jennifer Jackson and it’s lit by Ciaran Cunningham with some haunting tenebrous moments. Sound’s by Max Pappenheim.
The protagonist is quizzed as to why she hasn’t written a musical memorial to 551 children in Gaza, rather than her Concerto in A-minor The Starling Paradox? Is she being insidiously branded for not so doing? So the man examining her trans-vaginally is ’looking her in the eye, seeing pink nipples…. He’s looking her in the eye, seeing the nipples of naked Jewish women running in the ghetto, and he can’t say whether he wants to shoot her, or fuck her, or save her then marry her.’ There’s more explicit language than that. Phrases repeat themselves like Beckettian litanies with flexibility and deadly playfulness.
All these apparently gratuitous fantasies resonate, as does the composer’s pregnancy. We move further into what happened in 1944 with its surprising, darkly magical resolution.
Yasur’s not just negotiating Amsterdam’s past, but the position of a Jewish woman ‘from a western country’ loaded with expatriate ‘cosmopolitan’ status: sexualised dehumanized, seen as Muslim, other, in the home of tolerance. Veneers strip with language – there’s a use of the Dutch inscribed here but mostly it’s minimalized and the translations below are used. Despite the play and repeats we learn an enormous amount, partly because it nags into us.
Yasur’s a striking dramatist and this play’s interrogatives might prove uncomfortable (indeed two people left halfway). That’s why we need it and the Orange Tree, who in following up Lot Vekemans’ Poison of November 2017 with another Dutch-based play, proves yet again its risk-taking, internationalist credentials. All four actors bring an effortless gestural finesse to their parts, from Abelson’s queasy burliness, Barek’s lightning-alert balletics, Yannas’ quizzical probing performance and Horowicz who edges the protagonist with a mix of smiling sassiness and unease. Did I say sucker-punch? It’s what the Orange Tree does every time.