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Maureen Lipman inhabits the title role in this superb revival, originally streamed online during the pandemic. Rose is introduced as an 80 year-old Ukrainian Jew sitting shivah – “you sit shivah for the dead”; the deceased is a nine year old girl who was shot.
Rose has survived the Warsaw ghetto, escaped from purges by Hitler and Stalin, joined a refugee ship bound for Palestine and was turned away from country after country until landing in America.
In the course of her eight decades she loses two siblings, marries and loses three husbands and becomes a successful businesswoman. On one hand, it is a tale of individual survival; on the other, it is like scrolling through a history lesson.
Sherman skilfully negotiates the two aspects so that we see everything through Rose’s eyes. On a stark set, Lipman sits on a bench and tells the story, taking frequent sips of water due to Rose’s shortness of breath – “At my age, breathing is one of the few pleasures I have left.”
The perfect interpreter for this absorbing monologue, Lipman is a natural storyteller as well as a gifted actress; her comic timing is effortlessly precise, the recollections of atrocities and tragedy delivered with a wry banality that makes them hit home even harder.
When she attempts to summon a dybbuk – a Jewish spirit – to bring back her apparently dead husband, the air throbs with supernatural force. Her bewilderment on returning to Israel where her children have refashioned themselves as Zionist zealots – contemptuously rejecting Yiddish for Hebrew – is painful and brutally honest.
Sherman is nothing if not even-handed, even when exposing the suffering inflicted on Jews for millennia. It is a clever, entertaining, informative and enlightening play, performed with the kind of airy skill that conceals the artistry of a fine talent.
Rose is playing now at Park Theatre until October 15.
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