Pros: The juxtaposition between contemporary social media and the ancient art form of poetry throws up some interesting talking points about free speech.
Cons: It loses its way after a promising start, with too many concepts for the audience to follow.
Finborough Theatre is really not for the light hearted. My last visit was to see a play about genocide. Now it presents us with Checkpoint Chana, a play about anti-Semitism, free speech and racism. One thing is for sure, this place doesn’t play it safe!
Checkpoint Chana sees ageing poet Bev struggling to cope with the storm she has created by a single line in one of her newly published poems that many see as anti-Semitic. But it’s her PA, Tamsin, who is lumbered with damage limitation, understanding more fully the possible consequences of her boss’ actions. Beyond dealing with the public outrage, Tamsin is also managing Bev’s inability to deal with the world around her.
The opening scene between Bev (Geraldine Somerville) and Tamsin (Ulrika Krishnamurti) is well thought out, well written, and fantastically acted. For me this scene sets the tone of the play for the audience. It lays out the issues surrounding Bev’s actions, the reasons why many are demanding an apology, and then delves into the limitations of free speech. When exactly does offensive become unacceptable? But more than this, the scene beautifully outlines the relationship between the pair; they are employer and employee but also mother and child, and maybe even patient and carer. Tamsin tries valiantly to get Bev to comprehend why her poem has caused such offence, and what she should do to recover the situation, all the time trying to tidy up her book laden flat and organise her schedule.
However, after the bright start of this opening scene Checkpoint Chana waivers, seemingly weighed down by all the concepts it aims to examine. Anti-Semitism, freedom of speech, the pitfalls of social media, mental health and dementia are all big topics, and maybe not ones that can be dealt with in one 70 minute play. So after such a promising start it falters, and any hope of making a statement about its core concept is washed away by the tidal wave of all the other subject matters that are thrown at the audience. It’s interesting to note that the original play text differs greatly from the final play, possibly indicating some major last minute rewrites. Only towards the end, when the play returns wholeheartedly to its central theme – as journalist David tries to explain to Bev what it is like to be Jewish and the hostility he has faced for his religion – do we get another glimpse of the possibilities that opening scene offered.
For all its faults there is enjoyment in Jeff Page’s writing that makes Checkpoint Chana worthwhile. Page clearly understands character. His eccentric poet Bev feels authentic, completely at odds with the modern world, unable to cope with the fast pace of social media, more use to the sedately pace of her poetry, read in small rooms to a handful of people and not dissected by millions online. And Nathaniel Wade’s Michael, hall supervisor cum light and sound engineer, whilst only too briefly involved, has a realness within those few moments that again is surely credit to Page’s writing. Maybe the next rewrite will see more character and less attempts to examine the complex questions that cannot be answered in just 70 minutes of theatre.
Author: Jeff Page
Director: Manuel Bau
Producer: Marricdale Productions in association with Neil McPherson
Booking Until: 20 March 2018
Box Office: 01223 357 851
Booking Link: https://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2018/checkpoint-chana.php?spektrix_bounce=true