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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.


Amsterdam
www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk   Spring 2020

A coproduction of the Actors Touring Company, the Orange Tree Theatre and Theatre Royal Plymouth, this intriguing and thought-provoking drama by Israeli author Maya Arad Yasur played the Orange Tree in the Autumn of 2019, and is now available online.

As directed by Matthew Xia, Yasur's script plays like an extended actors' game, though one that takes the performers and audience into unexpected and disconcerting territory. The four performers – Daniel Abelson, Fiston Barek, Michal Horowicz and Hara Yannas – do not play characters, but narrators collaborating on what is designed to seem like a made-up-as-they-go-along story.

Speaking in random order they reach for each new sentence, try to come up with something to follow, consider and reject blind alleys, and even occasionally wander off into digressions or sub-stories. The illusion of improvisation is supported by one of the few props on the largely bare stage, a bell which any one of them can ring to force another to provide a footnote to what was just said, identifying a person mentioned or translating a foreign phrase.

The story they stumble their way to is of a pregnant Israeli musician living in Amsterdam who suddenly receives an enormous gas bill. Some detective work by the woman and narrative invention by the storytellers discovers that the bill dates back to 1944, when the Jewish resident of the flat was sent to Auschwitz and the flat was taken over as the local Nazi headquarters.

The black irony of the Nazis not paying their gas bill is a strong and resonant image, but it is soon followed by that of the modern Dutch bureaucracy totally uninterested in history and just wanting its bill paid and books cleared.

Along the way, the narrators get sidetracked into an episode of the modern woman imagining others in a supermarket queue looking at her, a dream of Otto Frank, the experience of an Israeli soldier under friendly fire and the speculation that the 1944 woman's husband might have been a collaborator.

The one element common to both the central narrative and the sub-stories is the assumption that the native Dutch always see others first as foreigners, then (when relevant) as Jews, and only third – if at all – as individuals.

Operating totally by indirection, then, Amsterdam becomes a rumination on the complex and ambivalent Dutch attitude toward its own history. Rightly proud of their bravery against the Nazis and their record of liberalism since, they also retain a deep Xenophobia and Anti-Semitism that embarrass them so that – like the man from the gas board – they would much rather just not think about it.

Director and actors deserve high praise for establishing the narrative mode and sustaining it through the 90 minute drama, for creating a sense of characters and places without ever actually showing them and, above all, for aiding the playwright in creating a play clearly and evocatively about something it never addresses directly.

The recorded version smoothly and intelligently cuts between two or three cameras, nicely capturing not only the play but the experience of the Orange Tree's in-the-round stage, though the sound – from, I would guess, a single hanging microphone – is not always audible or clear.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review of  Amsterdam - Orange Tree Theatre online  2020