Rose can’t breathe. This is particularly annoying for her because, she explains, it’s one of her few remaining pleasures in life. She sips at water, crunches on pills, and coughs every so often as she sits shiva and recounts her life story. As her doctor points out, for someone who can’t breathe, she does talk a lot. Thank god – whichever one you want – that pretty much every word is riveting.
Martin Sherman’s turn-of-the-millennium monologue follows Rose through a dark century of Jewish history, from a pogrom in Ukraine via the Second World War to a murdered Palestinian girl on the West Bank. Now in the West End after an online run during the pandemic followed by an in-person stint at the Park Theatre, we see Maureen Lipman return to the role and single-handedly mesmerise the audience while doing little more than sitting on a bench.
Sherman’s text is harrowing of course. It couldn’t be much else. But two decades on from its premiere, the chills come from unexpected places: after surviving the war, Rose becomes a displaced person. She is tossed between camps run by Americans and Brits (‘they called it a centre, but it was a camp’). To escape, she takes to a boat, which zealous British soldiers pursue before beating the refugees with clubs. In some ways, little has changed; in other ways… Rose comes from a Ukrainian shtetl called Yultishka. ‘Ukraine,’ she says, ‘why would anybody want it?’
While Rose’s life surges through ghettoes and pogroms, Nazis, Communists, a taste of the American dream, the inflaming of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and endless camps, director Scott Le Crass keeps Lipman very still. She sits on the bench, her posture perfect, moving just her hands. David Shields’s set looms behind her, like a closing book, and glows in vivid block colours, seeming to make Lipman’s edge’s radiant.
Two things become very clear: Lipman is an extraordinary actress, and Sherman an extraordinary writer. Lipman’s Rose foregrounds the humour: she leans into the wry observations, keeps it light when she can, smiles when a joke lands. For the darker stuff, the stuff she both needs to relate and can’t bring herself to remember, she resumes her stillness and lets tears come quietly, unshowily.
Particularly brilliant is the way Sherman unsettles the story by having Rose question her own memory: does she really remember those details? Because in her mind they look an awful lot like scenes from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, or the Paul Newman movie ‘Exodus’.
Maybe the second half strays a little too fancifully, before its thorny end. But mostly it’s elegance, simplicity, all pared back and back until the only focus is Lipman and the story, and through its simplicity it hollows you out all the more.