FringeReview UK 2022
Written and Directed by Julia Pascal, Set and Costume Design Liberty Monroe, Lighting Design Jon Stacey, Sound Design Flick Isaac-Chilton. Assistant Director and Stage Manager Anastasia Bunce, Executive Producer Susannah Levene.
Presented by Pascal Theatre Company in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.
Till December 21st
In one sense, the direction of travel in Julia Pascal’s 12:37 which premieres at the Finborough Theatre directed by herself is clear. At 12.37pm on 22 July 1946, the King David Hotel in Jerusalem – headquarters of the British Mandate in Palestine – was bombed by right-wing Zionists.
In another, it’s a long way from Tipperary. There’s Irish singing as we head east from Dublin in 1935, through London in 1936 and Palestine in 1946.
But to see it as just about this journey would trivialise this riveting drama, played with an exceptional five-strong cast, in the intimate Finborough with evocative set by Liberty Monroe, making striking use of newspapers as date-checks, Jon Stacey’s chiaroscuro lighting scored in wartime arc-slicing, on Monroe’s costumes – white, black and with occasional splashes of colour. Flick Isaac-Chilton’s sound adds voices as well as music, though lament and song is raised by the cast.
Instead of an epic with historical figures we trace two Irish-Jewish brothers, Paul (Alex Cartuson) and Cecil Green (Eoin O’Dubhghaill), who in conflict and amity, make an inexorable-seeming journey geographically and idealogically: both east. It’s a double-act: witty takes from Joyce territory to vaudeville, a whirling badinage born of (initially) mild sibling rivalry.
Obedient to parental wishes, they’ve qualified as doctors, and because mother Minnie (Ruth Lass) sells up, Paul’s divided finally from Catholic Eileen (Lisa O’Connor) as they migrate from Dublin to London Hospital careers (harrowing details) and a new marriage for widowed Minnie – Harry Cohen (Danann McAleer) who teaches resentful Paul how to box.
What’s striking is how writer/director Pascal refreshes physical theatre business in monologues. Traditional methods gleam with this first-rate ensemble, rippling with a kinetic fluidity that renders storytelling a sinew of water, light, even dust. There’s political monologues too when Paul’s shadow boxing. Broken choruses telegraph conflict, massacres, detonate resistance.
Paul resents his mother and Eileen’s father opposing their match, but is economically helpless. Pascal’s consummate on intimate details, sexual feeling in three female characters. In a late addition (not in the text) Eileen writes to Paul a blistering of love and dismissal, asking him not to haunt her living as he swore to haunt her dead.
As Lithuanian Rina Goldberg, her main role from 1936, O’Connor shivers her silences on the war where – suffering concentration camps – she describes herself already “dead”, to the way both brothers make love. Minnie’s own late desires disgust thwarted Paul, but not the gentler, less seemingly-attractive Cecil. As Lass’s character puts it memorably as Paul rejects the possibility of Rina, still dreaming of Eileen: “we need a bit of happiness to remember when we’re dead.”
From fighting Mosley’s fascists on Cable Street – a bravura grandstanding monologue by Lash as McAleer’s Mosley gives his salute – it’s clear East London won’t hold the brothers. Paul joins Rina’s Communists. The brothers’ Irish nationalism and dislike of British Imperialism translates to Jewish nationalism, though conflict between it and Paul’s communist internationalism isn’t touched on.
Paul’s hardening needs clarifying. The interval and Holocaust transmitted in physical lightning-flashes otherwise jump-cuts characters so we lose threads and with it motive. Minnie and Harry understandably vanish but bar Cecil’s ENSA work (no word on his or his brother’s medical career) we learn nothing, save Paul’s meant to be in India.
Both end up in Palestine; with Paul and Rina arriving all three marry in an instant, to predictable conflict. Whereas Cecil hesitates, Paul, Rina and Lash’s and McAleer’s later incarnations prepare to fight the British.
Lash as Minnie is an indelible Irish-Jewish matriarch, young enough to have one last shot at desire; and as the chillingly pragmatic Matron in 1936 and hardened fighter Shoshana Liebovicz she extends her range. McAleer apart from Mosley enjoys burling and braggadocio in a gallimaufry of British types. In Harry Cohen he finds a sweet spot of complexity and warmth: as he tries reconciling the furious Paul by turning into a skilful punchbag.
O’Connor is dazzling, both as sexy plangent Eileen, and Lithuanian Rina at first all song-and-dance, her relatively innocent Thirties communism transformed through unspeakable horrors in several camps. Though Rina claims to be dead, O’Connor conveys her intensity of political feeling, tempered to ferocity; and despite herself an awakening. The sexual ballet between herself and Cartuson is one of its most delicate explorations on stage.
Cartuson as clean-cut, sexually confident elder brother enjoys a terrific double-act with O’Dubhghaill, edgy and melancholic, both with Eileen and dealing with the enforced death of disabled children he’s told to accept; and naturally as the ambivalent, dashing freedom-fighter. Cartuson has to add with scant transition from the script, a hardened, desperate rejection of sexual happiness, at odds with urgent desire and buried love.
O’Dubhghaill deeply impresses as both inward, stepping back from ‘commitment’ and boiling inwardly as he sees everyone slip away from him. He’s the instinctive pacifist, a “healer” after all, he realises, whose memorable song-and-dance qualities bring a haunting of their own and the power of mute witness.
Frustration finally boiled after Britain – with havering anti-Semitism – stalled thirty years in making good the Balfour Declaration of 1917; and still only handed over Palestine to the UN in November 1947. Pascal’s handling of the climactic moments has the effect of collective held breath, which considering the terrible vacuum caused by the explosion is appropriate. Again the ensemble ripples details out, ratcheting up; and with a heartbeat of release we’re in the terrible epilogue.
What was it for? Did it accelerate the process? Warnings were issued, but ignored. 91 were killed, 46 wounded. It’s true – pace some comments – Pascal could have written a different play, involving for instance on the one side David Ben-Gurion asserting Israel would only be wrested at the point of a gun (the bombing he sanctioned should destroy British records, not lives); on the other more conciliatory Chaim Weizmann, his secretary Isiah Berlin and pro-Zionist MP Richard Crossman. Weizmann though realised conciliation was slowly redundant, that Ben-Gurion had a point. Berlin, visiting an uncle – who’d made his way from the Soviet Union, now cheerfully preparing machine-guns for the coming Israeli-Arab war – felt out of place.
That’s the point. Pascal’s drawn on her Irish heritage to trace the different pulse of one nationalism translating to another, refracted through one family, making – with very few caveats – this traversal uniquely relatable. The Finborough produces marvels, though this one, without losing its dazzling, tight DNA, deserves the widest possible transfer.