An eloquent, poignant love letter to Yiddish Theatre, Paula Vogel’s Indecent is a moving exploration of censorship, sexuality and a divided community. We follow the story of the debut performance ‘God of Vengeance’ by the legend of Yiddish theatre Sholem Asch and the theatre troupe’s travels across Europe and America.
Lemml (Finbar Lynch) is the stage manager; he steps out of an unending line and welcomes us into the world of Jewish theatre in Warsaw. A young, driven writer by the name of Sholem Asch brings his play to a local salon and, far from its now legendary status, is told to burn it. Asch’s play tells of a scandalous love affair between the daughter of a brothel owner and a sex worker, and despite criticism, it is an enormous success all over Europe. However, travelling to America is where the trouble begins; censorship, antisemitism and the looming rise of fascism in Europe places the plot in a precarious condition.
Lynch is terrific as Lemml; talking to the audience, he guides us through the unforgettable story of the Vilna Troupe. His performance is tender, loving and his reverence for Asch warms the audience into a beautiful world of theatre. Joseph Timms offers a compelling, perhaps overenthusiastic Asch, who spends large parts of the play disenfranchised from his creation, traumatised by what he saw in Poland. Peter Polycarpou is charismatic and colourful, playing the famous actor Rudolf Schildkraut, while Molly Osbourne and Alexandra Silber have excellent stage rapport as the two lovers.
Censorship and how Jews might criticise themselves without ‘fuelling the fire of antisemitism’ is the crux of the early parts of the play. Within the dialogue is a relevant questioning of how progressive discourse is dismissed by lazy narratives and exploitation of past traumas. The holocaust looms over the play, and there is no way to have avoided this when making a play about Jewish theatre about lesbians in Poland in the nineteen twenties and thirties. The bleak imagery and subject matter of the play is significant, as it should be, but there is so much more than that. Throughout the play is a wonderous hope and magic found in theatre as both an escape while also a place to ask questions.
Paula Vogel leaves the audience fundamentally hopeful, a tricky task in a play featuring the holocaust. But leaving the play on a hopeful note reminds us that there is so much incredible Jewish history before and after the holocaust, and this is not often recognised.
An all-around excellent play, the design elements pay beautiful homage to old Jewish theatre traditions, and the Brechtian aesthetic brings to life what might otherwise be worlds apart. This play is very dear to my heart, and it was a joy to see it performed with so much love and talent.
Review by Tom Carter
Indecent recounts the controversy surrounding the play God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, which was produced on Broadway in 1923, for which the cast of the original production was arrested on the grounds of obscenity – was it seminal work of Jewish culture or an act of traitorous libel? The play follows the path of the artists who risked their careers and lives to perform the play, and the action is accompanied by a small live klezmer band. It’s a beautiful play, and certainly resonates for now.
The Menier Chocolate Factory presents
The European première of
By Paula Vogel
Cast: Cory English – The Middle (Male); Beverley Klein – The Elder (Female); Finbar Lynch – The Stage Manager; Molly Osborne – The Ingenue (Female); Peter Polycarpou – The Elder (Male); Alexandra Silber – The Middle (Female); Joseph Timms – The Ingenue (Male); Merlin Shepherd – The Clarinettist; Anna Lowenstein – The Violinist, and Josh Middleton – The Accordionist Director: Rebecca Taichman; Choreography: David Dorfman; Set Design: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; US Sound Design: Matt Hubbs; UK Sound Design: Jonathan Everett; Projection Design: Tal Yarden; Music: Lisa Gutkin & Aaron Halva; Music Supervision: Lisa Gutkin; Music Direction: Merlin Shepherd
3 September – 27 November
Press Night: 13 September at 8pm