King's Head Theatre, London N1
Opened 27 April, 1998

Coming so shortly after the reunification of Germany, it is wildly fantastical that even the most guilt-racked Chancellor would by way of national contrition for the Holocaust make an unconditional offer of citizenship to six million Jews. Yet Israel Horovitz's play, set only a few years in the future, is more concerned with truth on a human and community than on a national-political level. Lebensraum was inspired by what seemed to Horovitz to be the absence of modern German awareness of Jews as more than an abstraction, and is really as much a Gedankenexperiment as a piece of theatre. He examines the assimilation (or otherwise) of individuals and masses of people, the re-encounter of a Shoah survivor with the woman who informed on him, and the guilt, defiance and ignorance not only of various generations and groupings of Germans but also of some Jews, by including a group of militant young Israelis; paradoxically, in the circumstances which Horovitz paints, both their worst fears and those of the resistant Germans turn out to have some foundation.

The author's own programme notes describe some aspects of the piece as "shabbily theatrical", but he is mocking rather than condemning his work. Inevitably, the human focus of the story is a love-across-the-divide trope (and why, by the way, is the young American immigrant Sam so fond of The Beastie Boys? Why, because Horovitz's son is a Beastie, that's why); only these episodes and the monologue of survivor Maxie Silberstein to his now-paralysed betrayer are the only scenes to last more than a couple of minutes. the rest of the 85-minute work consists of sketches linked by narrative, in an attempt to keep us thinking rather than to draw us into affairs on stage. For the same reason, "Brechtian" alienation devices aplenty are employed: props are ranged across shelves upstage, stage manager's announcements are heard over the sound system, and the audience directly addressed in a coda which proclaims "This play has no ending..."; even the fact that three actors are called upon to portray so many characters is a way of maintaining our distance.

Jemma Shaw has little to get her teeth into apart from the scenes of teenage romance, Ian Puleston-Davies is a little too ready to play the humour in his characters, and Jack Klaff (as is his wont) always seems slightly more there than the other two, although his tearful Silberstein monologue is a sequence of potent intensity... aided, on the press night, by offstage sound effects from God Himself, as peals of thunder emphasised key points of Maxie's account. My own supposed aversion to "plays of ideas" was quite disproved by the volume of notes I discovered I had taken musings on the issues rather than theatrical cavils. Lebensraum, then, works, and works well. One hopes it will work to similar effect in Germany.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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