Brief Encounter With ... Pat RoweDate: 7 May 2012The production of Jerusalem Tango which runs for most of May in the small studio theatre, Upstairs @ the Carriageworks, is interesting for many reasons. For a start, it is the first production of the New End Theatre Beyond, Brian Daniels having re-located to Leeds after running the New End Theatre in London for 14 years. With a regular production slot at the Carriageworks, he promises a steady supply of challenging new work.
However, Jerusalem Tango is fascinating in its own right. Writer Pat Rowe was formerly a broadcast and print journalist, a career that took her for some years to Jerusalem to work in radio. A contradictory city at the best of times, Jerusalem in the last years of the British Mandate (which ended in 1948) was a unique blend of the Last of Empire, spy mania and the racial and nationalist violence that still scars the area. So what better place to set a doomed love story?
Talking before the first night, Pat pointed out that preview audiences have had no trouble understanding the necessary political background: our comparative ignorance of the Mandate is an added attraction, rather than a difficulty. For her it’s a key period:
“I have had a lot of involvement with Jerusalem over the years, but I knew very little about the Mandate period. That’s why I read so much about it. Once you know about it, it makes sense of everything. Britain left such a mark on the place. I thought it was interesting to observe the last burst of colonialism and to see the British confronted with a situation they thought they could resolve quite easily, but which was much too complicated and difficult. They more or less left in disgrace, having failed in their mission to restore order. People now are finding all sorts of contemporary parallels in the play which I must say I didn’t have in my mind when I wrote it, but they are interesting – the thing of being somewhere where you think you are needed to restore order and finding that you are actually aggravating the situation, but find it difficult to leave – at what point do you actually leave?
“I homed in on this period two years before the end of the Mandate when this incident, the bombing of the King David Hotel, was almost the beginning of the end. It was such a shocking event and the Mandate was already very unpopular in Britain because so many people were being killed and it was so expensive. It’s important because aspects of the present situation were created at that time. The British aggravated the situation because they made promises to both sides and raised expectations that it was impossible to deliver.”
It’s noticeable that Pat Rowe always refers to the British as “they” or “them”, but Jerusalem Tango is in no sense an anti-British play: she seems to have sympathy with the people of all sides. Though the characters in the play are all British or Jewish, she makes the point that an Arab, frequently referred to, though never on stage, is one of the nobler characters. There is no political agenda, the play is not didactic, but the tensions, confusions and contradictions of 1946 Jerusalem add resonance to what is essentially a simple story.
The sense of authenticity is boosted by the fact that all the characters and events are based on fact, though they have been fictionalised and the names changed. The original for Sir Henry Gordon, the senior government figure, for instance, was a highly distinguished colonial administrator who was killed during the Malayan Emergency. The inspiration, however, came from humbler characters:
“During my reading I came across a love story. I read about a young British officer who was assassinated and at his funeral was this young Palestinian Jewish woman who had obviously been his great love – and I’ve just taken that relationship as a prism through which to see the complexity of the whole situation.”
Pat makes serious points about the political situation in 1940s Jerusalem: she is, for instance, suitably appalled at the remarkable crassness of the British Government’s reaction to Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe, returning shiploads of them because quotas had been exceeded. Equally, however, she savours the hedonism of those desperate days:
“One of the springboards was the fact that they used to gather in the King David Hotel which was the base of the Mandate secretariat and dance the tango. This to me was extraordinary: even at this violent time they were dancing the tango, though they were quite aware that the local girls were on the lookout for information.”
When Pat Rowe changed career from journalist to playwright, her first play to be produced, Toad, was staged by the New End Theatre, so Jerusalem Tango is, in a sense, a return to her first success: Toad won an Acorn Award and was broadcast with Imelda Staunton. Though many of her plays have contemporary settings, it’s interesting that her one taste of international success came with another love story in a historical wartime setting. Forbidden, set in 1940s Berlin, was produced at the Edinburgh Festival, then in Cleveland, Ohio, where Pat had a lesson in the comparative unimportance of the playwright during production:
“I managed to see it, but I’d had no involvement at all, and I thought, ‘They’re not going to understand it’, but in the end I liked it better than the one I was involved with – it was actually closer to what I intended.”
As for her next play, Pat is only willing to say that it will have a contemporary setting, though her fascination with Jerusalem continues: her first short story, recently published, takes place in the city, but in the present day.
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