The Holy Rosenbergs – National Theatre Cottesloe

One of the joys of theatre is that it can give you a wider understanding of other cultures apart from your own. Even if you don’t belong to that community, good theatre can immerse you, even if for only a couple of hours, into that community and give you a greater knowledge of their hopes, fears and struggles.

Sadly, while Ryan Craig’s The Holy Rosenbergs attempts to shed light on the divisions within the Jewish community over the issues of Israel and Palestine it’s never easily accessible for the non Jewish community.

David Rosenberg runs his own kosher catering business in Edgware but has been hit by a food poisoning scandal that threatens to destroy the family finances. His wife, Lesley, vainly battles to keep the family grounded despite her husband’s reluctance to face facts. There’s a basis for a play there alone but Ryan adds more fuel to the fire with the looming funeral of the Rosenbergs’ eldest son, killed while fighting in Gaza for the Israel Defence Force. Again enough material but no further fanning of the flames with the fact his sister is a lawyer who is working on a UN report on alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza. So hated is she in her own community that protests are planned at her own brother’s funeral.

With all this trauma happening within their own family you’d think they’d be quietly grieving and looking to get through the difficult funeral with dignity. Instead we are offered the implausible plot device of the family inviting a potential client to dinner in to secure a crucial business contract.

While The Holy Rosenbergs does explore some universal themes of familial communication problems and dilemmas the strong Jewish cultural connotations are not easily understood from those outside the Jewish faith. At a pre-show discussion with the author and the director, Laurie Sansom, they mentioned they had decided against including a glossary of terms in the programme. In hindsight that may have been a poor decision as its omission adds barriers to those who spend time wondering what a particular phrase or custom means rather than engaging with the characters.

There are some redeeming features; strong performances from the company who do their best with the material offered. Henry Goodman works well as the complex father while Tilly Tremayne’s outwardly fussy but inwardly centre of the family holds attention.

There are elements of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons here but Miller crafts his work with much greater clarity and depth. Director Laurie Sansom has staged the piece in the round at the Cottesloe but any attempt to draw the audience into the action is thwarted by an overblown, impenetrable – and at times totally unbelievable – script.

The difficult and emotive subject of the Israel and Palestine conflict is worthy of the resources of the National Theatre; sadly The Holy Rosenbergs does little to enlighten or drive debate on this important subject.

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