“She laughed and then she blew her nose. She had a cold. The bullet struck her forehead. It caught her in the middle of a thought. She was nine.”
It’s the eve of a new millennium and eighty year old Jewish woman Rose is sitting shiva to mourn the dead. Rose is a survivor; she’s seen many terrors in her life but she’s a strong and spirited woman, and is taking a retrospective look over her eventful life. She reminisces over her early years growing up in the Ukraine, living through the horrors of the holocaust, her journey to a new life as a refugee on board a ship called The Exodus, and finally achieving the American Dream in Atlantic City and Miami.
Written by Martin Sherman, one-woman play Rose first premiered at the National Theatre in 1999 with Olympia Dukakis taking on the role, and went on to be nominated for an Olivier. Now more than twenty years later it has returned for a limited online run, in collaboration with the Hope Mill Theatre, this time starring actress Maureen Lipman. The play blends the personal with the political as the audience are taken on a journey through history as seen through the eyes of one woman. This is no ordinary monologue, with a duration of just over two hours, and Sherman’s razor sharp script ensures that the audience are entranced throughout. What helps is that Rose is an instantly likeable woman – it’s clear from the very start that she’s been through a lot, even though she admits herself she’s not sure sometimes what really happened and what was in Fiddler on the Roof. The play blends moments of tragedy and comedy to great effect, and often before things get too hard-hitting, there’s a well-timed injection of humour – Rose’s reaction to the death of her constantly ill father, for example.
What becomes apparent early on is how chillingly relevant the play is – even twenty years on. Rose’s descriptions of how Jews were treated during the war and of her journey on board The Exodus to a safe place are reminiscent of the issues we have still face in society today with antisemitism and racial tensions still evident, not to mention the treatment of refugees. It’s a startling reminder that although a lot has changed in the world over the past twenty years, some things haven’t changed at all.
When Sherman wrote the play, he did so with Maureen Lipman in mind, but circumstances meant it wasn’t mean to be – until now. It’s easy to see why Lipman was first choice; she’s mesmerising right from the very start, and over the two-hour play takes the audience on an emotional journey, pausing momentarily to take a swig of water or pop one of Rose’s many pills. She is faultless throughout as she embodies the feisty character of Rose, full of wit and dry humour when delivering lines like ‘at my age breathing is one of the few pleasures I have left’ with perfect comic precision. She has a cool exterior at times and then just moments later she’s close to tears as she describes one of the many harrowing moments Rose has witnessed in her life – the final ten minutes in particular are incredible and sure to give you goosebumps. Lipman’s film and television career means she’s at home in front of the camera and immediately draws you in. At times it’s easy to forget this is an online production, and in fact there are moments throughout when it feels like she’s in the room with you, looking you straight in the eye as she confides in you.
Scott Le Crass’s sensitive direction works incredibly well with the online medium, and a particularly nice touch is when the camera looks out into an empty auditorium. It serves to create the effect that you’re enjoying an intimate chat with Rose, and also a reminder of the many empty theatres which need our help. The use of sound effects and the occasional projection adds to Rose’s descriptions, while the simple staging – just Rose on a bench with a few props – is equally effective, ensuring that her story can take centre stage.
With a thought-provoking script at its heart and a flawless performance from Lipman, Rose is an important and powerful production which proves essential viewing. While there’s still no opening date for many theatres across the country, online productions are for the moment an essential way to connect with the arts, and Rose proves that it’s possible to still enjoy first-class theatre from the comfort of your home.
Rose is streaming on Thursday 10, Friday 11 and Saturday 12 September 2020. To book tickets visit https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/ A percentage of ticket sales will go towards supporting Age Concern, The Fed & UK Jewish Film.
Photo credit: Channel Eighty8