Theatre review: Rosenbaum's Rescue

John Nathan is disappointed by a play about the Jewish escape from Occupied Denmark


History tells us a miracle happened in October 1943 when 7,500 of Denmark’s 8,000 Jews were saved from the Nazis by their fellow Danes who ferried them to Sweden. But A. Bodin Saphir’s debut play reflects a gathering revision of that story.

It is inspired in part by Bodin’s grandfather whose brother-in-law, a tailor, was tipped off by a high ranking German officer that the country’s Jews were to be rounded up. This, it is said, chimes with new evidence that the most crucial element of the miracle was not the brave Danes, nor God, as this play’s observant Jew Abraham (David Bamber) believes, but the Nazis who ran occupied Denmark, Werner Best and his right hand man Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, who may have decided to sabotage their own antisemitic operation.

It is fascinating story but this attempt by Saphir to combine history with family drama is awfully clunky. The action is set in the living room of Abe’s isolated house in Denmark where he lives with his wife Sara (Julia Swift). It is December 2001, the last day of Chanukah and the couple are lighting (for some reason only seven) candles on the menorah when Abraham’s historian friend Lars (Neil McCaul) turns up with his daughter Eva (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), a scientist-turned-art critic.

Lars, it emerges, has an agenda. He wants to interview his host about the events that led to the evacuation of Abraham and his family. And when the play gets down to nitty gritty history telling it has much to say about how long-accepted truths can be more fiction than fact when you look at them forensically. But despite the strength of the cast —particularly the excellent Bamber who in recent years has been on stage far too little for my liking - the play’s arguments are hampered by the implausible way in which its characters behave.

The main dramaturgical problem here is that Eva’s knowledge about her family history is all too conveniently zero until the evening unfolds. Telling her is how Saphir gets across much of his exposition. Arguments blow up like bolts out of the blue in order to generate drama, and family secrets are divulged with equal inelegance. Meanwhile Abraham’s Jewishness is no subtle affair. The furniture may be (Liberal Synagogue) Danish but he wears a kippah and is in the infuriating habit of invoking the six million in the most trite of circumstances. His son Henrik may not be able to visit tonight but he’s going to try. “Six million people had to die so he can ‘try’?” says this Danish alter kocker.

Whether director Kate Fahy felt the need to over-egg the Jewishness here in order to leave the audience in no doubt as to the strength of Abraham’s faith is hard to say. But the history of Denmark and its Jews deserves a much more subtle telling than this.

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