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The pandemic halted the production-line at the Menier Chocolate Factory. That this delectable unsubsidised venue is open again, albeit with its estimable restaurant still shuttered, is very heartening.
What’s especially impressive is that artistic director David Babani kept the faith. Indecent, which closed last March after just the second preview, has resumed, with cast intact, as if time had paused and restarted.
In that interval, Paula Vogel’s richly researched evocation of a bygone era of Jewish community and Yiddish theatre has arguably become more affecting. A former Pulitzer Prizer-winner, she alighted on a fascinating nugget of cultural history. And with fellow American Rebecca Taichman, who won a Tony for directing the play on Broadway in 2017, she has explored it in a way that’s coherent and compelling without letting in any musty whiff of the class-room.
The piece concerns and features excerpts from the neglected Yiddish play God of Vengeance by Polish-Jewish author Sholom Asch. It caused consternation when it was staged in English in New York in 1923, having been mounted there with a lesser outcry shortly after it was written in 1906.
The contention involved the scenario – it’s set in a Russian brothel whose Jewish owner strives for respectability by commissioning a Torah scroll – and its Sapphic content: his virginal daughter Rifkele falls for one of the women, “Manke the prostitute”.
They declare their passion in the second act, marking it with a kiss in the rain – apparently, the first lesbian kiss on a New York stage. Though the context was rewritten for the Broadway run, downplaying the love element, it was still too hot to handle: a rabbi decried it as a libel on the Jewish religion; the vice squad shut it down at the end of one performance.
Rather than sifting the minutiae of the ensuing obscenity trial, Vogel gives a sweeping sense of what life was like, and what the play meant, for the artists. And she accentuates the way that the furore illustrates an age-old tension, acute in the Jewish community but felt elsewhere: toe the line, be accepted and even become successful, or tell the complex truth and perhaps face denunciation and discrimination; a charge against the play was that it fostered anti-Semitism.
Acting as emcee at the start, Finbar Lynch’s kindly stage-manager Lemml seems to conjure the dead, dust trailing from coat-sleeves as they twirl about during his introductions.
This humble shtetl tailor is there at the first read-through, finds its honesty life-changing. In an ineffably touching moment he presides over a 1943 enactment in an attic in the Lodz ghetto, where it provides a grain of hope for a troupe of starving actors. That initial dust motif points to the ash of the death camps and contrasts with the life-giving rain that cascades down on a pitch-perfect Molly Osborne and Alexandra Silber as the Romeo and Juliet-esque “couple”.
The set is simple: bare-boards before a gilt proscenium arch, projections indicating when English or Yiddish is spoken. Despite running almost two hours, it all moves apace, ranging from louche Berlin club to Ellis island immigration queue, each scene given a fleet focus by the nimble ensemble.
Three of the cast play klezmer music, the remaining seven, including Beverley Klein and Peter Polycarpou, with a stand-out turn from Joseph Timms as the intense Asche, shift roles as required, albeit sometimes to briefly bewildering effect.
There is much singing, dancing, a wistful gaiety, as if laughing at the world’s cruelty and mortality. In a typically succinct touch, the characters will freeze for a “blink of time” – the effect is transfixing, as if we were watching real-life memorialised, old photographs animated. Recommended.
Until Nov 27. Tickets: 020 7378 1713; menierchocolatefactory.com