Whether you enjoy this play – or indeed whether you should risk giving it a go at all – will depend greatly on your taste in theatre. Do you feel a thrill in your bones when an old story is told in a new and “experimental” way? Or do you prefer to lurk instead in the comfortable familiarity of more conventional drama? You know: rounded characters, emotional connection – old-fashioned stuff like that.
In Amsterdam, four actors create a story. They have no significant personalities of their own, although Daniel Abelson distinguishes himself by playing for laughs where possible. All four surrender themselves to the task in hand, making statements which are then built on or contradicted or confirmed by the next cast member. A glance at the play text confirms this is one of those scripts in which lines are not attributed to specific players, leaving each production to divide them up as they see fit. The result is the sort of “Let’s put the show on right here!” enthusiasm of an improv show.
So, what’s the story being built with this veneer of a devised enterprise? In modern Amsterdam, we’re told, a pregnant violinist and composer is given an unpaid gas bill from 1944 by her cigar smoking upstairs neighbour. This eventually leads – after a paranoid visit to the shops and an uncomfortable gynaecology appointment – to a wartime tale of love and death and Auschwitz.
It’s not particularly easy to follow the plot, and since the characters are described rather than performed – it’s a stream of “She said this”, “He thought that” – there’s a lack of that essential empathy that can make live theatre so engaging. This is more like a written story that four Jackanory presenters have committed to presenting to an audience. At intervals, one of them scurries over to a microphone to provide a translation or explain a point, like a verbal footnote. This has a sort of charm the first few times, but it soon stales.
About halfway through there’s a lengthy transition as a chain curtain is assembled that rises to bisect the stage. I expect this is intended as a coup de theatre, but try as I might I can’t come up with a single explanation for it. No doubt it’s symbolic of something, but of what I remain completely in the dark.
The cast do exactly what’s asked of them, fluidly occupying the space and moving things along at a brisk pace. Should you go and see them? Well, the Orange Tree is a lovely theatre and this is a technically accomplished production. But to explore the horrors of the holocaust with such a jocular and uninvolving approach strikes me as singularly misconceived and in fact bordering on distasteful.
Written by: Maya Arad Yasur
Directed by: Matthew Zia
Produced by: Orange Tree, Actors Touring Company, Theatre Royal Plymouth
Playing until: 12 October 2019
Box Office: 020 8940 3633
Booking link: https://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/amsterdam