How do you write about the Holocaust? More precisely, how do you write about the Holocaust and still give your audience reason to laugh? And how do you adapt a multi-voice novel which includes myth, dips into different historical periods and veers between gut-wrenching tragedy and gut-aching comedy? Simon Block obviously doesn’t balk at a challenge. He has undertaken to turn Jonathan Safran Foer’s prizewinning tragi-comic novel into a play.
American writer Jonathan is visiting the Ukraine to search for Augustine, the woman he believes saved his grandfather’s life during the war. He is assisted by a translator whose family specialises in trips for American Jews seeking their pre-war roots and whose take on English owes more to studying a thesaurus and second-hand idioms than conversational practice. “I must eat a slice of humble pie” he says solemnly when things go wrong, money is “currency”, sight is not dimmed but “occluded by desire”.
Put simply, novels are long, plays are short; one cannot fit neatly into the other. Block’s solution is to mix what is interleaved in his source, so that the “writer” (who shares a name with the book’s author) is visited by characters demanding to have their stories told. And so the historical background, Jonathan’s imagined family history, is minimally sketched in.
Alex (an appealingly guileless Craig Parkinson) is the interpreter. His grandfather, who claims to be blind, is the expedition’s driver and accompanying them is an importunate, flatulent dog glorying in the name Sammy Davis Junior Junior, a character here present (mercifully) only in sound. They encounter an old woman as the first act ends. After the cartoonish fun of the first hour, the mood changes; for the old woman, sad to her bones (intensely played by Gemma Jones) has unbearable memories. Gradually Alex’s grandfather, who describes himself as “a good man in a bad time” reveals that he too has a terrible secret, that he was part of the events in war-time Trachimbrod, the village which is now no more than a shadow on the landscape.
Jonathan is played by Patrick Kennedy in lovable, geeky Woody Allen mode. David Ryall does his best to tell the irascible grandfather’s story, but with too little detail to build on, while Denise Gough successfully impersonates several young women from lippy waitress to virginal ancestor. [Rachel O’Riordan]’s production manages to make the various strands into something of a whole and to keep the narrative ticking along.
Ultimately, this is neither a perfect adaptation of the novel, nor a perfect play, but it is a good night in the theatre. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry - albeit because such unimaginable things happened at all rather than out of sympathy for individuals whom we have had too little opportunity to get to know.
- Heather Neill