Indecent was originally scheduled for a run at the Menier Chocolate Factory in early 2020 until it was postponed by You Know What. So, first of all, a big thanks to their Customer Care department who kept in touch regarding our booking and ensured we got as close to our original choice of seats as possible for a convenient date now that the production has been allowed to re-open. They’ve done the same for Habeas Corpus (coming up over Christmas) too. They went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure we got exactly what we wanted. Fantastic work!
And now the play! Indecent is a Tony Award-nominated play by Paula Vogel first produced off Broadway in 2016. It takes us on a journey (ooh the J word) from 1906 playwright Sholem Asch’s first readings of his new play, God of Vengeance, through the decades up to Asch’s later years when students want to retranslate and revive the play – although Asch refuses permission. Ever since I found out about Indecent, I’ve been kicking myself for not knowing more about God of Vengeance; you may, or may not know, gentle reader, that I spent two postgraduate years at London University researching theatre censorship. But I never came across this play, because there was never a planned production in Britain, despite playing regularly all throughout Europe.
Productions of Asch’s play culminated in a run at the Apollo Theatre on Broadway in 1923. All was not well with this run though, as, during one performance, the police entered the theatre and arrested the cast and producer on grounds of obscenity. And the reason? The play features the virginal young daughter of a brothel-keeper who falls in love with one of his “girls”. In one significant scene, the two women caress each other in the rain with gay abandon. Not only that, the play ends with the brothel-keeper throwing out his Torah saying he no longer needs it. Lesbianism and blasphemy. That was a lot for that 1920s audience to take in.
Despite the contemporary condemnation of and resistance to Asch’s play, Indecent pays hugely affectionate homage to The God of Vengeance, and everything about its writing, its performers, and its legacy. We see the young Asch desperately trying to impress Mr Peretz, founding father of modern Yiddish literature, who recommends he burns it; we see the final scene of God of Vengeance being played all over Europe with increasing confidence and passion; we see the police break up the New York performance and the cast go on trial; and we see old Asch having nothing to do with the play. In a separate, but connected, course of events we follow the relationship – professional and personal – between Reina and Dine, the actresses who play the daughter and the prostitute; and the personal journey (J word again) of Lemml, a young tailor, who champions the play from its earliest stages and becomes its stage manager.
It’s a deep, complex play, given a highly elegant and stylised production by director Rebecca Taichman, who discovered God of Vengeance whilst studying at Yale and wrote a thesis about the legal shenanigans of its censorship. As we enter the auditorium the cast are all seated in front of us, silent and still; including three musicians who form a Klezmer band to accompany and provide a musical commentary to the action. They all stand and approach us, as dust and ash cascade out of their coat sleeves. Words are projected on to the back screen to date and explain each scene as it develops, but in a simple informative manner rather than some kind of Brechtian distancing device. There are a couple of scenes where the whole set – and indeed the cast – are bathed in words, which makes for a very vivid visual tableau – nice work from the lighting design. In the history of theatre censorship, time after time it has been shown that words are more powerful than actions, and it’s usually words that censors fear more than actually portraying the meaning of those words. The God of Vengeance faced no problem in New York when it was performed in Yiddish; it was only the English translation that became unacceptable. Samuel Beckett had exactly the same problem with his plays that were originally written in French (no censorship) until they were translated into English (result – censorship!)
The cast form a superb ensemble, each of them taking on a number of roles except for Finbar Lynch, who remains the strong, quiet, determined and (almost) indefatigable presence of Lemml throughout the play. It’s a wonderful performance; measured, dignified, authoritative, and truly convincing. That class act, Peter Polycarpou, is in his element as the famed actor Rudolph Schildkraut, delivering his performance as brothel-keeper Yekel with stagy enthusiasm, and also capturing the emptiness of the depressed older Asch.
Among her roles, Beverley Klein brings the house down with her ever more overdramatic performance as Sarah, Yekel’s wife, and Cory English is excellent in his multiplicity of roles. Joseph Timms is great as the bold and ambitious young Asch, and turns in an amusing and rakish cameo as the playwright Eugene O’Neill. Alexandra Silber and Molly Osbourne are superb as both Reina and Dine the actresses, and Rifkele and Manke the characters, gradually but inevitably progressing towards the end sequence where the famous rain scene of God of Vengeance is finally portrayed.
I must be honest, I feel the play occasionally gets a little chewy; it has a lot to say, and sometimes its messages get a little bogged down and tough to follow. I also found its structure, which means that our attention is constantly being turned towards considering the rain scene, makes it feel a little repetitive. Neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I truly understood the significance of the “blinks in time” – moments when the action briefly stops and freezes in tableau – not only did they seem to be random choices, but there were also a couple of times where the “blink” on the projection screen and the actors freezing didn’t quite happen at the same time, which made it look a bit silly. I should also say that from our seats in row B, sometimes the projection words on the back screen were obscured by the actors and the words at the front of the stage were obscured by the theatregoers in front; a little annoying when these words play such an important part in the production as a whole.
But this is to quibble. This is a very significant new play, that takes events that began in 1907 and brings them firmly into the present day, with themes that include anti-semitism, censorship, and homosexuality, which are as relevant now as ever. It’s also made me want to add The God of Vengeance to my reading wish list. Fantastic performances, very thought-provoking, but also very enjoyable and occasionally very funny. It’s on at the Menier until 27th November, and is definitely worth catching.
Production photos by Johan Persson