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Alexandra Silber on returning to Indecent: 'I'm putting a costume on a body that has been totally remade'

Indecent is running now at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Molly Osborne and Alexandra Silber
© Johan Persson

I knew that, when theatres began to reopen, one compulsory interviewee would have to be Alexandra Silber, appearing in the UK premiere of Paula Vogel's Indecent at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Not only is she a sage, illuminating creative, but back in March 2020, when the impact of the pandemic still felt raw and relatively unfathomable (we'd only be out for a couple of months, everyone assumed), Silber penned a blog about having the London premiere of Indecent, in which she starred, postponed. In her own words: "Please dear theatre makers and lovers—take heart. From the ashes we will, all, rise."

This has all turned out to be, perhaps later than expected, true: just like the story of the play Paula Vogel's semi meta-theatrical experience Indecent is based on (Sholem Asch's The God of Vengeance), the London production has endured through adversity, now back for a much-anticipated spell.

Silber is no stranger to London, having been the first takeover in the role of Laura in the Lloyd Webber musical The Woman in White, before appearing in a 2007 revival of Fiddler on the Roof and remaining at the production's Savoy Theatre home to play Julie in Carousel. But she hasn't been back here on stage in a long while – how does that feel? "I finished my childhood and started adulthood here – and now with the perspective to look back on everything I did in such a short space of time, I can think wow, that's ridiculous."

Whille a rollercoaster, an opportunity to disconnect and travel was key to Silber's development: "I think I was also trying to work out who I was as a person, solving why I'd left the USA in the first place (after my dad passed away early in my life). So I had to go back to my origins in order to grow and evolve before I could ever come back to London."

But while the postponed production may have been promptly put back into action, Silber herself is, quite literally, not the same person as she was in March 2020, thanks to some significant life changes over the last 18 months: "For the last seven years, I've had a severe, punishing autoimmune disease. When I was here in 2020, I was just starting to experience a flare-up, probably due to the stress of the coronavirus in early March.

The Indecent company
© Johan Persson

"That flare-up lasted over the course of 2020 – the end of a seven-year battle...So medical professionals decided to remove my offending organ and add a new one, created out of tissue in my body. That meant three major surgeries in under six months. But I didn't need to cancel any work, and healed privately, talking about it in my own time. I'm putting a costume on a body that has been totally remade but also healed and cured. I can celebrate the miracle of health."

But the impact of the last 18 months is broader than this, Silber believes: "If we change during this time, the way we work changes, the way we see work changes. Theatre is all about repetition – you say the same lines, wear the same costume and stand in the same place, but the words can sound different, the world can feel different. That has never been more clear to me." It's a striking experience, the performer explains: "Putting a costume on a totally changed physical body feels like a metaphor for returning to a play in a totally changed world."

Silber also notes just how different everything has been, even on a practical level in the rehearsal room. This is not the same company as the one in March 2020, even with the same cast members returning: "Closing that show together last March means we've shared trauma, and brought us closer as a company. That means we've endured too much to recreate. It wouldn't be appropriate to do the same thing."

Indecent has played to all sizes – from the cosy Vineyard in New York through to the 1000-seat Cort Theatre on Broadway. The intimacy of the Menier Chocolate Factory sits neatly with the text, Silber explains: "There's a moment where we become a group of players performing in an attic. It's crushed, it's tight, we're in the middle of a crisis, and we're now going to tell a story. The Menier feels like that attic – it's an 'oh-my-god" moment."

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