Theatre Review - 'The Holy Rosenbergs'

Posted by Alexander Hay

The divisions within a Jewish family over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict serve as a microcosm of events in the outside world in Ryan Craig’s excellent new play

It's a family affair in The Holy Rosenbergs

It is a time of deep crisis for the Rosenberg family of Edgware. Their eldest son Danny has been killed fighting for the Israeli Defence Forces against Hamas in Gaza and a candle burns before his picture on the living room table. 

His sister Ruth has returned for the funeral, putting on hold her work in Geneva as a lawyer investigating possible war crimes that include Israeli actions. Meanwhile the youngest son Jonny is refusing to join his father David’s kosher-catering business and plotting to invest in an online gambling site.

On the eve of the funeral a major problem arises. Big-hearted patriarch David Rosenberg is clinging to a deal that should save his ailing firm and his cherished standing in the local Jewish community. But both the rabbi and the doctor warn the family that if Ruth attends the funeral, the event may become the scene of ugly protests. 

Furthermore the doctor, who is also the synagogue chairman, is close to signing a contract giving David exclusive rights to provide the catering at his daughter’s wedding. Should Ruth abandon her work for the sake of her parents and save her father’s business or should each member of the family act according to their conscience?

This is a well crafted and engaging play that explores tribal loyalties, the culpability of family and the consequences of standing up for what you believe to be right, as the personal and political are seamlessly intertwined. Indeed the playwright is particularly adept at showing how domestic events can reflect the challenges of global politics. 

There is a particularly well written and gripping scene when the doctor and a colleague of Ruth argue over rising anti-semitism and the need for a Jewish homeland to have a clean human rights record.

Despite the seriousness of the drama there is a welcome vein of sharp humour running through it, as when mother Lesley pleads amidst all the arguing, “please God I’ll go deaf in a few years time!”, or when David reflects that every morning he discusses the weather with his local newsagent. “I’m an Ashkenazi Jew and he’s a Waziristani Muslim. There’s not an iota of Anglo-Saxon blood in our veins and yet we are obsessing about the weather. What could be more English? We are respecting one another’s emotional borders”.

Director Laurie Sansom draws superb performances from his top flight NT cast. Henry Goodman perfectly combines steel and sensitivity as the proud, self-deluding, misguided, yet brave David, Tilly Tremayne is immensely touching as his robust but actually fragile wife Lesley, while Susannah Wise makes a strong impression as the coolly rational Ruth, Alex Waldmann fully convinces as the wayward playboy son Jonny and Paul Freeman brings austere gravity as the doctor and pillar of the Jewish community.

This certainly marks another triumph for the National!

Plays in repertory until June 24.

Box office: 020 7452 3000

Press: 020 7452 3333

By Laurence Green

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Alexander Hay

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