Following 18 weeks of rehearsal and just five previews (after the first two were cancelled at the last minute), Mike Leigh's new play - belatedly titled Two Thousand Years - has finally opened at the National's Cottesloe. It feels at once fully inhabited yet oddly inconclusive and tentative, too; like the traffic of life itself, of course.
Such has always been Leigh's method: to paint a slow-burning dramatic canvas, etched in rich character detail that puts real life on display in all its doubts, disappointments and dysfunction. For all that, there is also a great deal of familial (and familiar) compassion, too. The now famous collaborative process that Leigh employs to create his plays and films, with the actors spending a lot of time researching their roles and the social background they exist within, creates its own reverence for the finished result.
But watching this ruminative family portrait of a deeply secular Jewish family who live in north London's Cricklewood, suddenly challenged by the increasing devoutness of the 28-year-old son Josh who is still living at home and, despite a first class university degree in maths, has never held down a job, there's also a sense sometimes of earnestness and worthiness.
This is Leigh's first play in a dozen years, but the intervening time has seen him create such film masterpieces as the multiple Oscar-nominated Secrets and Lies in 1996 and Vera Drake last year. It's not surprising, therefore, to note that the first act feels almost 'storyboarded' - there are glimpses into this family's life that pass by in some scenes that are very short and virtually silent.
But the second act kicks into life in one long sustained, real-time family clash that’s beautifully orchestrated to uncover the various strains of discontent brewing not too far beneath the surface. Josh's sister Tammy brings her new Israeli boyfriend Tzachi to visit; and the mother's younger, long-estranged sister suddenly arrives, unannounced, after an 11-year absence. The stage is set for old resentments, particularly from Samantha Spiro's highly strung, extremely selfish returning sibling, to burst out into the open.
Threaded through the whole play is the quiet, unexplained despair of Josh, seeking a refuge in religion, amidst a family that don't observe their faith but nevertheless feel their Jewishness keenly. This is the heart and soul of the play, and Leigh uses it to also address such contemporary issues outside the family that resonate upon it, such as the Israeli-Palestine question, the failure of the kibbutz ideal, the war on Iraq, and even the recent New Orleans hurricane.
One senses Leigh straining to bite off more than he can always chew here. But he is impeccably served by a stunning ensemble cast of finely etched performances, with the family beautifully summoned by Caroline Gruber and Allan Corduner as the parents, Ben Caplan and Alexis Zegerman as their adult children, and John Burgess as granddad.
- Mark Shenton