The opening scene, with its verbal motifs of "positions", "time" and "terminus", casts the oblique shadow of the Holocaust, but then veers rapidly away; only in the final scenes do we return to the upheavals which, like the Anglo-French war in Shakespeare's original, unmake the old, known world and destroy the central characters. Julia Pascal's intelligent, witty and affecting rewrite is set for the most part in New York of 1939-40; in the first narrative scene proper, we see actor-manager Esther Laranovska auditioning young theatrical hopefuls by getting them to recite Hamlet in Yiddish – "Sein, oder nit sein, doss is die Frage..."
The plot is familiar, although only at the end of the first act does this "queen" abdicate, leaving the money she has amassed over forty years in the theatre to her two elder daughters to open a nightclub. Then, thrown out of eldest daughter Gail's apartment on discovering her affair with sister Rachel's husband Irving (Goneril, Regan and Edmund respectively), queen Laranovska joins the already-banished remains of her old company (a trio who serve almost interchangeably as Kent, Edgar and the Fool) busking for dimes on the street. When youngest daughter Channele rediscovers her mother, being unable to bring the French powers into the land to right these wrongs as did her antecedent Cordelia, she absconds with her sisters' nest-egg and takes the company to France; unfortunately, whilst they are at sea, as one of them puts it, "Herr Schickelgruber decides to visit Paris", and now "the Germans like Jews so much they're collecting them." Which is almost where we came in.
Pascal wrote the part of Esther for Ruth Posner, who is magnificent, commanding through quiet assurance rather than blustery "king-acting", and finding herself ground down but never quite disintegrating until the penultimate, but cruellest, twist: Esther finally goes mad only on hearing of Gail's death, revealing that it is the elder ingrate rather than the angelic Channele who has always been her favourite. Amanda Boxer is an almost sympathetic Gail for all her selfishness, and Natasha Pollard as Channele makes the finest smiling yet suffering Cordelia I have seen in a few years. Anna Ziman, Anton Blake and Tim Levine are equally strong as Esther's loyal company. Pascal herself directs with her customary sensitivity for doing justice at once to the human story in the foreground, its classical origins (as also in her powerful version of The Dybbuk) and the horrors lurking at the edge of the stage, waiting to become a final-act diabolus ex machina.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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