Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Review: Jerusalem Tango

Jerusalem Tango opens a window on to a part of history previously unknown to me: the British colonial presence in Jerusalem after the Second World War, and the story of the King David Hotel bombing. The blurb for this show was promising; it had romance, war, suspense, violence and was based on historical fact. I was excited to see it. I needn’t have been.

Pushed into one of the small studios at the top of the Carriageworks in Leeds, it was clear that New End Theatre had trouble adapting to the space. I can only owe it to a problem with the wings, but rather than change the staging, they had actors just walk across stage whilst another scene was going on, in order to get to the right side for their entrance – presumably hoping that the magic of the theatre, combined with their miming of corridors, would make the audience believe that the character was merely wandering past whilst a dramatic scene raged on inside an adjacent room.

©New End Theatre

This clumsiness also transferred to the performances. The play opens with a Palestinian Jewish woman who seduces a young British officer by inviting him to dance the tango with her at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Although Jenny Leveton as Ziva was by far the strongest actor in the cast, these opening scenes lacked the provocation and passion necessary to make the rest of the plot believable. Ziva was meant to be the self-assured tango teacher, enjoying her seductive mastery over her adopted protégé, and instead they both found themselves stumbling over the steps, perhaps concentrating too hard on the lines being spoken simultaneously. The whole play seemed under-rehearsed, the scenes between Michael Forrest as Albert Corby and Peter Alexander as Sir Henry Gordon suffering from what appeared to be the actors fumbling their lines. Forrest was meant to be the light relief, a ‘salt of the earth’ character who fell off stepladders and then carried an exaggerated limp for much of the play, but his slapstick efforts to draw out humour from certain choice lines fell flat amidst the melodramatic script. He never made eye-contact with the other characters, or looked up properly towards the audience - possibly in order to demonstrate his meekness, but it was quite a frustrating trait as the audience never got the full brunt of his lines.

Staging problems continued with the age-old problem of the desk in an end-on space: just how does one place a desk – with one end towards the audience, on a diagonal, with its longer side facing towards the audience? Never have I seen a set prop so clumsily navigated in a professional production – actors were talking to each others backs, they were walking stiltedly backwards in order to be in a position where they could actually see each other and so give some impression of dialogue. Similarly, on the other side of the stage, the one set prop was a single bed, and some portions of dialogue were played with the two actors sitting with their backs to the audience – this is a convention that can be tolerated, if the conversation is interesting enough and if it is not kept up for too long. Unfortunately neither of these were the case. The script was often melodramatic, with clichéd lines such as, ‘I have to go. They’ll be wondering where I am…’ and ‘I didn’t mean to fall in love with you! But I did’. Joel Parry as Thomas Wilson was the lucky recipient of some of the most cringe-worthy lines, and did little to redeem himself as a character with which the audience could sympathise. His wooden acting was unfortunately held in sharp contrast to his ‘dancing partner’, Leveton, who was much more believable (and, by the way, had an excellent accent).

The playwright had the formidable task of presenting a short snatch of history to the audience and providing them with all the political details required to understand the context of the play. This was mostly achieved, although resulted in some lengthy political diatribes from some of the characters. It is a shame that based on such an interesting premise, this play could have been good. Unfortunately, undermined by a predictable script, flaccid direction and wooden acting, it was an evening better spent elsewhere.

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