I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
Requiem for the twentieth century
Imagine a challenge set for a student director. You have one actor in a two-hour play about the last century. That actor will sit on a bench for most of the time. If the director was told that the actor would be Dame Janet Suzman, they would at least know there would be no need to lock the theatre's doors, to stop audience members sneaking off
Rose, by Martin Sherman, was first performed in London's National Theatre, in 1999, starring Olympia Dukakis. It takes us on a personal journey from the Ukraine, to the Warsaw Ghetto, to the newly formed state of Israel. Then, on to the sands of Miami and the Arizona desert, where Rose can almost forget the past in a hippy haze and the glint of life-changing opportunities on the horizon.
Janet Suzman as Rose in 'Rose', by Martin Sherman, directed by Richard Beecham. HOME Manchester, 25 May - 10 June 2017 (photo by Simon Annand)
The precision of the lighting (by Technical Director and Production Manager Jasper Gilbert and his team) is crucial to the success of this production. The lighting is not just a backdrop to the play, it also reinforces the changing locations and emotional colour of Rose's story, whether this is the aquamarine of a sea-crossing or the scorching red of Arizona, to give just two examples.
The play opens in total darkness, except for a light shining on Janet Suzman's face. We are initially drawn into her world by her wry humour. She is like a female Jackie Mason, delivering a steady stream of one-liners - "God is like a policeman, never there when you need him", to quote just one.
However, passing references to the crimes of Stalin and Hitler, let us know that the laughter will at some point be interrupted by brutal reality. Janet Suzman's ability to shift emotional gear is as note-perfect as her comic timing.
Martin Sherman's script does not tell you anything that you couldn't find out from a history book. What is does do is to give us some sense of what it felt like in the full blast of those historical storms.
How reliable a narrator is 80-year-old Rose? We can never be quite sure as she makes contradictory statements about her own powers of recall. What is crucial to holding our attention, is the veracity and emotional resonance of what she says.
Rose's loss of her religious faith is a key theme of the script, as she struggles to let go of it. At one point she admits that she talks a lot about God for someone who does not believe in Him.
The dramatic tension of the play, particularly in the first half, is achieved by the question of whether Rose will evade the tragic fate of so many Jewish people in the last century. Dramatic tension also comes from watching Janet Suzman perform the tightrope walk of getting from the first to the last line without stumbling.
There was an autocue-screen at the back of the stalls but it was hard to tell if Dame Janet ever used it. The people I mentioned this to at the interval were surprised to learn of its existence.
The lack of character interaction in Rose, is made up for by Janet Suzman's majestic stage presence and by the way she, and Martin Sherman's words, bring the key players in Rose's story to life.
There were a few minutes in the second half when the play started to drag but this quickly passed. Dame Janet brought this twentieth-century epic to a close, like a maestro musician negotiating the fade-out notes of a symphony.
Rose, directed by Richard Beecham, is at HOME until Saturday 10 June. The chance to see a great actress share a lifetime of expertise and experience is not one to be missed.