I'm told that a bookshop in Kilburn is now stocking that most pernicious fiction of the past century or so, the Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion. A little further up the High Road, the Oxford Stage revival of Peter Flannery's Singer at the Tricycle is a welcome corrective about the truths and lies of anti-Semitism and the shackles of memory and history.
We first see protagonist Peter Singer as an inmate in Auschwitz, trading in the camp "market" to stay alive: "Make a deal today, and live until tomorrow – that's the important thing." On arrival in post-war Britain, this petrified morality allows him to become a successful slum landlord – Peter Rachman, to all intents and purposes – until laid low by a typically British tabloid scandal (abusing tenants is tolerable, but not killing a dog). The first half ends with his apparent suicide.
After the interval, Singer has reinvented himself as a Sixties art buyer, but bent on revenge against the most brutal of the camp guards, who forced Singer to beat a fellow inmate so badly that the victim sustained permanent brain damage. When this, too, leads to a flashpoint, we cut to twenty years on, and Singer as a soup-kitchen saint, suddenly rediscovered and lauded as an early exemplar of housing policy by young Thatcherites. Cue another crisis of self-realisation.
Singer has, he says, led five lives by the end of the play, but like Peer Gynt, he never really finds himself. He is always compelled by the need to escape, or atone for, or at least understand, the experience of Auschwitz, and yet by that very drive, he remains bound to it... every bit as much as his nephew and conscience, Stefan, who spends decades painting scenes from the camp as a testimony, and the lumbering strongman Manik, his mind arrested at that point by the beating he received.
On its première in 1989-90, Singer drew a number of accusations of anti-Semitism, which seem to me plainly absurd; it's a complex (though overlong) play about memory, and the Holocaust is the weightiest memory a human being can carry. In the central role, Ron Cook is not the protean, electric figure apparently incarnated by Antony Sher in that first production; rather, Cook is at once stocky and wiry, trying always to be self-contained and always finding that the world insists on placing him within it. As for the final broadside against social-Darwinist profiteering, what truly disturbs is not its impassioned unsubtlety, but the extent to which many of the ideas themselves have since become unquestioned common currency.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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