Life & Culture

Tikkun Olam Theatre review: Who gets to remember the Shoah?

In this online production, the fight to build a Holocaust memorial next to Parliament is the subject of Dutch stage director Teunkie van der Sluijs's debut play


Tikkun Olam
Original Theatre online | ★★★★✩

In choosing as his subject the fight to build or prevent a Holocaust memorial next to Parliament, Dutch stage director Teunkie van der Sluijs treads on territory few writers would have the confidence to explore in his debut play.

The production itself, directed by former RSC artistic director Michael Boyd, is also an outlier in the sense that it exists only online. As part of this theatre company’s project to champion new writers it is one of three new plays to be filmed on stage with semi-rehearsed casts who perform (very well) with script in hand.

Steve Alexander (Jake Fairbrother) is a Labour MP who is campaigning in favour of the Shoah memorial. His adviser Dan (Luke Thompson) conscripts Jewish influencer Leah (Debbie Korley) to anonymously weigh in with arguments in favour of the memorial, mainly to counter local opposition to the plan.

The grassroots movement against is embodied by retired nurse and local resident Mary (Diana Quick) whose objections sound like nimbyism but are tinged with petty nationalism. Is it up to Britons to memorialise the Holocaust when it wasn’t even their country that committed the crime?

For Steve — the son of an English mother and West Indian father — his rather hoary big picture arguments recognise that it was the human race who perpetrated the atrocity, and so as humans is it not all our responsibility to remember and learn from the atrocity?

No one questions whether by making the entire race responsible for the worst crimes in history effectively absolves those who carried them out. But van der Sluijs’s play gets into its stride in excavating the political motivations behind the pro-memorial camp’s position.

Steve’s campaign is counter-intuitive when you consider he is courting opposition in a constituency he will try to win at the next election.

But his is a position of principle, he assures Leah. Yes, there are more Jews in his constituency than most others, but still too few to swing the vote in his favour. Leah, however, is quick to point out that given his party’s recent relationship to Jews it would be strongly symbolic to get their support.

The arguments are thrillingly articulate and on the whole manage to avoid the on-the-nose didactic tone that so often infects political plays.

The structure is a series of argumentative encounters between the characters that in less skilled hands would have felt fatally contrived. But here they continually peel back layers of hidden motives.

Steve’s is not just that Jewish victims of the Holocaust have yet to be appropriately recognised in a public space in this country, but that those who have hitherto been deemed worthy of memorialisation are, in descending order, white men, animals, women and then black people.

And then, as Leah points out, the Kindertransport statue at Liverpool Street station doesn’t really count as it exists to memorialise a British act of compassion while drawing a veil over the fact that the children’s parents were condemned to death because Britain refused them entry.

As if all this was not knotty enough, van der Sluijs adds an extra layer of complexity by revealing white assumptions about what a Jew is and is not. How?

By making Leah black. And it is here that the writer really skewers the left’s progressive attitudes towards Jews. In Leah’s hands Jewish Talmudic wisdom about how bad things can result from good intentions, such as a Holocaust memorial, are well expressed.

If the play gets a fully staged outing Leah’s character would benefit from a better drawn backstory. But the writer’s grasp of political positions and what lies behind them is a minor miracle, especially when you consider he is writing in an adopted language and about the politics of his adopted country.

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