“This is a passionate, funny, moving and well-observed play.”
Michael Billington, The Guardian
“Absolutely terrific…This is vintage Leigh.”
Mike Leigh is best known for his feature films, Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake and Life Is Sweet, as well as for Abigail’s Party, which stripped bare notions of accepted social behaviour in the suburbs of the seventies.
Two Thousand Years, first seen in 2005 at the National Theatre, is Leigh’s Jewish play; the one he’d been threatening to do for years. In this play, he explores how three generations of a secular, middle-class Jewish family in twenty-first century London come to terms with their cultural and political heritage. He sees it as his job “to raise questions, …to leave you to ponder, to debate, to argue and…to reflect about things, rather than to walk way and forget the whole experience.”
Leigh is Manchester Jewish: “a very specific condition, with its own abrasive sense of humour” and the play is packed with Leigh’s trademarks; laughter, tears, passion and intellectual fisticuffs; yes, and occasional strong language.
He manages to link family life with the big issues of the day and the play says much about Britain in the first decade of the new millennium. As Leigh himself puts it: “Two Thousand Years is about caring, togetherness, generosity and selfishness, love and anger, hope and disappointment, and life and death. In other words, it’s about families and politics. It is both a Jewish play, and a play for and about everybody.”
Whether being a Gentile, like me, is a handicap or advantage in writing about this play I don’t know....
Sterling production values were obvious from the word go. Gerry Cortese’s unfussy, very attractive set invited us in and gave us an idea of these people’s world even before we’d met them. It accomplished well what sets should always do: served the play, not the ego of the designer, and made full use of our wonderful stage. The decision to position most of the furniture – and thus the action – as far forward as possible, was spot on. It put us, the audience, right in that room. Raising the rear of the living-room guaranteed excellent sight-lines. Traditional and more contemporary Jewish music for the lead-in was well chosen, not merely complementing the set but gesturing toward the vast canvas promised by the play’s extremely ambitious title. Sue Piller’s workmanlike lighting went about its business unobtrusively, doing everything the play and the audience required.
It opens in stillness and silence. Three members of the family sit immersed intently in their reading. Dentist husband Danny (the totally believable Stephen Gray) and wife Rachel (Gini Comyns – outstanding!) break the silence. What, she asks, does he think of that newspaper article? He doesn’t know. It’s confusing. She agrees. And so the principal building blocks of 2,000 Years are quickly established: family, political opinion, discussion, confusion. Josh, their highly-educated jobless son (Samuel Nunn, in the most difficult part) is the third of the reading trio. But he has very little to say – another building block. Their neighbour, Jonathan (convincingly played by Adrian Bowd) arrives bearing allotment vegetables and his political opinions, and the conversation skips through Arafat, the peace process, Israel, Iraq, Sharon etc etc. We are now thoroughly embedded in the Jewish community of north London. Until the arrival of Auntie Mash at the end, these building-blocks don’t vary much. With one striking exception: in a few very short scenes – too short, really – Leigh establishes that the son, Josh, has secretly become religious.
Casting was fantastic, largely free of the short-comings which bedevil amateur theatre: all the characters were pretty much the right age and right physically, too. (Was this great good luck, or incredible industry by the Director...?) Lyn Fernee turned in a sparkling, girlish performance as the globe-trotting Spanish-interpreting Guantanamo-Bay-conferencing pro-Hugo-Chavez “activist” (and daughter). Speaking of casting, Alan Lade as Tzachi, her Israeli boyfriend, was perfect, and though I’m no expert on Israeli English his accent was, for me, believable and above all always consistent. You just didn’t doubt this man had passed his stint in the Lebanon war smoking ‘cigarettes’. Samuel Nunn as the perplexed, newly religious son, found himself in a part Mike Leigh made as difficult as possible, one-tenth outrage and nine-tenths silence. He deserves a medal for his efforts, as does the Director. Gini Comyns created a very distinct character in the mother – bringing an authenticity and quiet self-possession to her, as she kept the lid on a family always threatening to boil over. And Alan G. Baker was simply tremendous as Dave, the irascible grand-dad and patriarch, a sort of Jewish Alf Garnett. Frances Wood was perfectly cast as Auntie Mash, whom she played (rightly) not so much as a human as a monstrous neurosis. (Her unexpected arrival impacts the end of this play like the collapse of the Twin Towers impacted the beginning of this century.)
But how seriously Mike Leigh wants us to take his play, I am really not sure. Is it a comedy? A serious, probing discussion play? Does it know? Wouldn’t it have been interesting if Josh had said to his horrified family: “But listen to yourselves. You have no idea what you believe in anymore. Your own religions – Israel, the kibbutz, socialism – are dying, didn’t even last your lifetime. So what on earth is so wrong with me trying out the Faith which got us through 2,000 hard years, and is still going strong?” Be that as it may, both audiences on the nights I attended enjoyed it. And I admire the endeavour of Derek Watts and the theatre in staging it.