Don’t Destroy Me
Arcola Theatre | ★★★✩✩
There is a flailing energy to this early work by Michael Hastings. First seen in 1956 it would take nearly three decades more for him to write the play for which he became most famous, Tom and Viv, about the failing marriage between T.S. Eliot and Vivienne Haigh-Wood.
In between these two plays Hastings established himself as a Royal Court writer though without quite being part of the Angry Young Men theatrical revolution of his peers.
On one level this play (set in Brixton where Hastings was raised, mainly by his mother Marie) mirrors the author’s difficulty in defining a career which is comprised of short stories, biographies and novels as well as plays. As with much of that work Don’t Destroy Me features a broken yet continuing relationship, about which it is not always clear what Hastings wants to say.
What is clear however is that this production vaults us powerfully back to a particular moment in Anglo-Jewish history. The action is set largely in the apartment rented by a dysfunctional Jewish couple Leo and Shani Kirz (Nathalie Barclay and Paul Rider). They are expecting the arrival of Leo’s 15-year-old son Sammy played by Eddie Boyce in their (to use the actor’s preferred pronoun) theatrical debut. Up until now Sammy has been raised by his aunt in Croydon.
The drama often spreads out into the hallway where the lives of the house’s other occupants overlap. Each flat is owned by Jewish landlady Mrs Miller (Sue Kelvin) and all the doors have mezuzahs, even those occupied by non-Jews such as bookmaker and wide boy George (Timothy O’Hara) with whom Shani is having an affair.
Her marriage to Leo is floundering on almost too many rocks to count. Of these the couple’s age gap is the easiest to spot. Leo must be well into his 50s while Shani claims to be just 29 (though some doubt emerges about this).
Theirs was a marriage of convenience entered into in the aftermath of war. It is also quickly established that Shani is not Sammy’s mother. Leo’s first wife died in Poland while giving birth in a place “that smelled of bones.”
Everyone in this play is the living, damaged legacy of war, filtered through Jewish experience, which is undoubtedly what motivated Hastings to write it. His own father, a Jewish tailor before the war, was shot down on a bombing raid over Dresden.
Upstairs neighbour Mrs Pond (Alix Dunmore) and her daughter Suki (Nell Williams) are the most obviously damaged in the play. The mother is a kind of Blanche Dubois figure whose husband was killed in the war and who has fantasies about gentleman callers. Her daughter Suki is no less fanciful as she conscripts Sammy into her world view. “All children who have been busted up by war are never the same,” she declares to the increasingly disillusioned Sammy. His faith in God and his father has eroded. So rather oddly the plot hinges on a visit (organised by the well-meaning Shani) by the local rabbi. This sends everyone into a tizz of expectation as if the Queen were dropping by. But when the rabbi arrives he comes up against Leo’s drinking and his war-taught atheism. Hastings must have felt he was being terribly daring.
Tricia Thorns’s ambitious production recreates Mrs Miller’s property with well observed period detail and all these elements jostle like molecules in Hastings’s melting pot. Disaffection, disappointment and dissent boil over. But when the action becomes shouty an impression forms of a young playwright who feels very deeply about something he can’t quite articulate. Still, a lifetime after he wrote the play it is hugely satisfying to see this lost-forever Jewish world revived.