September 2020 and the pandemic was quietly raging. So too was Maureen Lipman in Hope Mill Theatre’s online production of Martin Sherman’s intense monologue Rose; her performance was routinely recognised as a tour de force. The piece won many plaudits including an Off West End Offie and featured as one of my 20 For 2020. Since then it has been restreamed more than once and also appeared on Sky Arts – indeed it is still available on their catch up channel Now TV. But for the real undisputed deal, and if you’re near enough, head to the Park Theatre in Islington where the production is playing until mid-October.
The play takes the form of a directly addressed linear monologue about one Jewish woman’s experience of eighty years of history and her place within the scheme of things. Pogroms, World War 2, the Holocaust and the Exodus are the significant events which inform the narrative of the first half; Rose’s life in America and viewing from afar the formation of and conflict within Israel/Palestine the meat of the second. Through it all lives Rose herself, increasingly questioning her faith and ideologies and who bookends her own biography with an explanation as to why she is sitting shiva and examining her own life (no spoilers here for a clever reversal of a somewhat unexpected outcome).
It’s slightly strange coming back to the production after a twenty four month gap but the intimate nature of Scott Le Crass’s staging soon draws you in. Interestingly some of the writing has gained even more relevance as world events have unfolded. The opening section which is all about the protagonist’s early life in Yultshika “just a little pimple on the face of the Ukraine” has significantly more resonance now than it did two years ago. “The Ukraine! Why would anyone want it?” Seemingly the Russians, as indeed they did in 1920 when the Cossacks committed atrocities which have been devastatingly recalled in recent events. There’s also a damning section about the British attitude to and treatment of refugees which has added some heft since the previous staging. And, of course, there’s now a whole new frisson at work in the character’s reflections on the process of mourning and why it is important for humans to do so.
Sherman’s piece is carefully structured, though having heard the tales before they probably had less impact than first time around. A rather whimsical section about a beauty pageant in Atlantic City being invaded by a dybbuk (the dislocated soul of Rose’s dead first husband) strikes a rather odd note at the start of the second half. That said, it received some of the best audience reaction of the evening. What is undoubtedly stronger, however, is Lipman’s commanding performance. She sits throughout gazing intently at the audience bringing an intense energy into the space despite being seated throughout. There was an occasional stumble in the first half, but she really came into her own in part two with excellent use made of her impeccable timing in the aforementioned dybbuk sequence and bringing herself and the rest of us close to tears on more than one occasion. The technical control here is impeccable and all thoughts of Lipman being just a comedienne are completely banished. And what a feat of memory from an actor who is two years nearer to Rose’s octogenarian status than previously. It was evident in the streamed version that it had been filmed in sections – no such respite here.
Sherman told me an interview that the monologue. which he originally wrote at the turn of the millennium was written with Lipman in mind. Over twenty years later it was a treat to see the fulfilment of that creative urge on stage. If I enjoyed the piece itself a little less, I relished the central performance rather more. I would urge you to experience it if you can.