by Paula Vogel
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Menier Chocolate Factory – until 27 November
This may be a sweeping statement, but if you’re not profoundly affected by Paula Vogel’s provocatively titled powder keg of a play, as staged here in Rebecca Taichman’s Tony Award-winning production, then can you really call yourself a theatrelover? I’m quite serious: it’s hard to think of any other show in recent memory that is quite so steeped in the seedy magic, the graft, the mechanics, the egos, the passions and eccentricities, and the sheer storytelling of live theatre.
Taichman’s dream-like, occasionally eccentric vision, played out on an almost bare stage under Riccardo Hernandez’s gorgeously tarnished false proscenium arch, revels joyfully in the myriad of possibilities, and the visual and emotional shorthand, that theatrical staging affords. In conjunction with Vogel’s dynamic but weighty script, the show also rams home the importance and relevance of the performing arts in day-to-day life, something so many of us have been uncomfortably aware of during the last eighteen months.
Both Vogel’s writing and Taichman’s production are delightfully and deceptively simple, with a laser sharp precision, but also richly textured, sublimely witty, and, ultimately, heart-stoppingly moving. It’s a history lesson – the true story of a controversial 1920s Broadway play that saw the entire company charged under obscenity laws for depicting lesbian love on stage – but one with passion, fire and heart, presented against the broader backdrop of the treatment of Jewish people throughout history. While there are countless plays, films and books depicting the latter, few do so as hauntingly and inventively as Indecent.
The numerous locations, time zones and even languages are beamed up on the bare brick wall at the back of the stage, and the story is contextualised further by the inclusion of projections listing the complete works of Sholem Asch (author of the “offending” play God Of Vengeance). We even get a compendium of 20th century Jewish creatives at the helm of the golden age of the Broadway musical, with the mock-rueful caveat that they don’t tend to write in Yiddish any more.
When the audience enters, the seven actors and three musicians are already seated on stage facing out front. When they start to move, notice how rivers of dust pour from their swirling limbs. It’s an enchanting, but unsettling, effect, and one that will acquire a terrible significance as the story gathers pace and we return to a similar visual near the show’s conclusion. Taichman’s production is filled with instances of similar ingenuity (the moment when the infamous yellow stars appear, is like a shock of icy air blasting through the house) but only ever at the service of the play, never just to be a striking gimmick. The humanity here is all, and it’s beautiful and frequently unsettling.
Almost the entire Broadway creative team has reassembled for the Menier version because, really, why mess with perfection. All of their contributions (David Dorfman’s choreography, Emily Rebholz’s costumes, Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, the aforementioned Hernandez’s set) are seamless and invaluable. Everybody here is working at the top of their game, and the results are spellbinding.
The same is true of the onstage company, who emerge as figures from the mind and imagination of stage manager Lemml (a mesmerising Finbar Lynch). This is truly an ensemble piece, with endless doubling up of roles, and it’s not always clear where the boundaries between actors and musicians exist: they really feel like the troupe of wandering players they represent. Apart from Lemml, all other roles are listed in the programmes simply as “Actor”.
Beverley Klein and Peter Polycarpou as the senior actors are so effortlessly accomplished that you’re only made aware of the brilliance of their technique at the exact moment where they want you to see what they’re doing. Joseph Timms and Molly Osborne – both magnificent- bring multiple layers to the playwright, his wife, and several other roles.
An astonishingly good Alexandra Silber invests the leading actress with a beguiling neuroticism and brittle glamour that gets swept away in moments of high emotionalism: it’s an unforgettable performance, deeply felt and exquisitely detailed. Corey English, known in London perhaps most for his terrific, high energy musical theatre work, proves what a devastatingly fine actor he is, impressively transforming from garrulous Irish-American cop to righteously ranting rabbi in the space of one speech.
Indecent is a Jewish story – the final, rain-soaked scene is actually performed in Yiddish, and it is one of the most moving things you’ll find in any theatre in the land right now – but in it’s clear-eyed compassion, it’s gorgeous theatricality, and it’s quiet but powerful insistence that attention be paid to the past and the departed, this is a play for everyone. This production was closed in preview by the first lockdown but proves a hell of a powerful reopening for this mighty venue. An unmissable, breathtaking piece of theatre, pitched somewhere between a ritual and a seance, I will be experiencing it again as soon as I feel emotionally robust enough. A shaynem dank to everyone involved.