It must be an Irish thing, the ability to hold an audience captivated throughout a two-hour monologue.
The last performer who was able to hold me captive for that length of time was Irish actor Conor Lovett performing in The Beckett Trilogy last year.
Actress Fiona York lives up to this famed Irish ability to tell a story, currently spellbinding audiences at the Kalk Bay Theatre in Martin Sherman’s Rose, a tale spanning 80 years and encompassing some of the most significant events of the 20th Century.
York inhabits the character Rose – an 80-year-old woman sitting Shiva for a nine-year-old girl – so convincingly that I was tempted to believe it was autobiographical.
Shiva in this case does not refer to the Hindu god but to the Judaic tradition of mourning a close relative for seven days. It is this period of inactivity during which visitors are received that provides the theatrical context in which we ‘visit’ Rose and humour her desire to speak. Yet it is us who are humoured, then intrigued, and, very soon, enthralled as she leaves us guessing who the deceased nine-year-old girl is and shifts us effortlessly to the Ukrainian shtetl of her childhood, the ghettoes and sewers of Warsaw, the founding of the state of Israel and the wonder and confusion of the New World – America.
It is an intensely personal story involving experiences and emotions the depths of which, happily, few of us have plumbed. In the hands of a lesser actress the performance could slip into schmaltz and melodrama. Yet York, under the direction of Ben Hennessey, holds the critical thread of belief taut even as she relates the horrors of the holocaust from a personal perspective. She really could be a woman remembering experiences she’d rather forget. While York loses herself in memory, she pulls back at the point where the pain would be too much to bear. With intellectual humour and self-deprecating asides, and a disguised Yiddish tongue that never fails her, she snatches herself, and us, from the depths into which she seemingly unwittingly plummets and opens up a vista onto an extraordinary life in which the pain and loss is equalled by joy and the wonder of survival.
Rose was first performed at London’s National Theatre in 1999 and is now presented by Red Kettle Theatre Company and KBT Productions, with support from Culture Ireland.
Performances at the Kalk Bay Theatre run from Wednesday to Saturday until August 6, with shows starting at 8pm.
For more information and bookings go to www.kbt.co.za — Steve Kretzmann