Maureen Lipman: my new "hard left" role

John Nathan interviews Maureen Lipman and finds she's as funny and outspoken as ever


It is all too easy to be distracted when talking to Maureen Lipman. The intended subject of the conversation is her latest play. The Coronation Street star is taking on the formidable title role in Martin Sherman’s 1999 monologue Rose, which, from the perspective of a Ukrainian-born Jewish woman, spans most of the 20th century including the Holocaust.

“You know when something feels like the right thing to do? And when this young man [director] Scott Le Crass said, ‘would you like to do it?’ I said yes, that’s the right thing to do now.”

But before talking about the play (by socially distancing phone, of course) there is the matter of hellos and how-are-yous to negotiate, which would normally be over in a minute but in Lipman’s case triggers quality comedy.

“Alive, symptom free and family’s okay,” says Lipman

Same here, I say, mentioning that my doctor brother who works in a hospital thought he had Covid, but didn’t.

“I’ve never met a Jew who hasn’t thought he’s had it,” says Lipman before launching into a Beattie-esque riff . “‘We’ve all had it! I’ve been coughing since February. I must have had it!’ Have you been tested? ‘Nooo, I haven’t been tested…’”

We must all be immune by now, I say.

“Yes. We’ve been spat on so much by people in the past it’s made us immune.”

The revival of Rose is a digital production raising funds for Age UK and Jewish charities The Fed and UK Jewish Film, as well as the Hope Mill Theatre which is hosting the work. It will be streamed from September 10 to 13 and is not to be confused with another online play Watching Rosie which features Miriam Margolyes whose criticisms of Israel Lipman famously has no time for, to put it politely. Though Lipman still cannot help make a gag about the difference between the two Jewish actors.

“We’re two sides of the same coin,” she says ruefully, then adds. “Cohen. We’re two sides of the same Cohen.”

Yet though all this feels like a digression, it is all really connected to Sherman’s Rose, a role which Lipman will have to hot-foot it by cab from the set of Coronation Street to perform.

There can be few lives more difficult than Rose’s. She was born, she tells us, in a Ukrainian shtetl, although she is speaking in a Florida hotel which she runs and which bears her name. During the course of her monologue she relates the detail of that journey: how she moved to Warsaw, nearly starved to death in the ghetto where her daughter was killed, and settled in America where she became a mother again.

Yet this is no misery memoir. As she sits popping pills for various ailments, one-liners worthy of a Borscht Belt comedian pour out of her. The play works both as a gripping story and as a beautifully observed portrait of a Jewish archetype. But it gets its political edge from Rose’s relationship with Israel. She had intended to live there before the British stopped her and thousands of other Jewish refugees from settling in Palestine. Instead, it’s her son who makes aliyah, and slowly her relationship with him and his new country is soured by what she sees as Israel’s unjust treatment of the Palestinians.

When Olympia Dukakis first performed it in New York there were accusations that the play was anti-Israel. Did that make Lipman 

“One of the basic chords of this very musical chamber piece is that he [Sherman] says at one point, ‘I realise that the greatest contribution of the Jewish people was to ask questions that can’t be answered’”, explains Lipman in the accent of her character. “And that the glory of the race is not so much that we gave the world Moses and Marx and Jesus but the invention of the phrase ‘On the other hand.’”

“I think you could say very convincingly that he’s very much doing a yeshivah debate here,” continues Lipman, now in her own voice. “He’s saying, ‘This is the Israel we wanted. This is the Israel we got.’ However, if I were to play Lady Macbeth I wouldn’t question the length she goes to to get the blood off her hands. In other words, it’s a part and I can’t judge it.”

There are sections of the play “that are further hard left than I want to be,” she admits. But there is also the argument that by having an actor who is pro-Israel play Rose (as opposed to, say, Maxine Peake who notoriously linked the death of George Floyd to Israeli police training, later retracting the claim) might make the play’s politics more “tempered” .

Where Rose describes her journey to Palestine on The Exodus after the war, the play resonates with today’s callous attitudes to immigrants, says Lipman. “In the end Rose is convinced that humanity is more important than any creed, faith [or] religion,” says the actor. “And I think I can identify with that.”


Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive