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Jonathan Lichtenstein shares some of the memories that inform his play ‘Memory’
By Judi Herman

Judi Herman is a freelance writer, broadcaster and producer, working mainly for BBC Radio World Service and the BBC’s main UK speech network, [Radio 4]. She specialises in making radio features on arts and entertainment, religion, education, travel and human-interest stories. Among programmes to which she contributes regularly are the World Service Arts and Entertainment Magazine The Ticket, the World Service Heart and Soul Series and Radio Four’s flagship magazine programme Woman’s Hour. She also writes regular theatre reviews for the influential UK theatre website Whatsonstage.com and is a guest performing arts lecturer at Middlesex University Judi has written several stage shows, including How the West End Was Won, a show celebrating Jewish life in the West End of London, commissioned to accompany the London Jewish Museum's exhibition Living Up West; and Stones of Kolin, a play with music, charting six hundred years of Jewish life in a small Czech town, performed in both London and Kolin in the Czech Republic. She’s also worked in Public Relations, including theatre PR, so she reckons she knows the theatre business from more sides than most! Judi lives near London with Steve, her husband of thirty years. They have a son and a daughter in their early twenties – and the family is completed by a Bedlington Terrier puppy called Bertie! E-mail : judi_herman@hotmail.com  

As we walk companionably to the quiet room I’ve booked for our meeting, Lichtenstein reveals that his father was a ‘Kindertransport’ child, sent by his parents from Nazi Germany to London in the nick of time just before the outbreak of World War Two, his life almost certainly saved by the emotional bravery of his heartbroken parents. His father’s journey ended in rural Wales which is where Lichtenstein himself grew up. When his father eventually spoke about his past, he was positive – his glass half full at his survival, rather than half empty at being torn away from his parents and the world he knew.

Certainly this is one family story that informs Lichtenstein’s play that moves in time and space between the Berlin of the 1930s and 40s and the early post Communism of 1990, via Israel/Palestine during the Second Intifada and the building of the West Bank Wall.

The events of wartime Berlin he shows in the play are harrowing, but we first meet his grandmother as a feisty, though difficult old lady. Eva is ungracious in her initially chilly reception of the very first visit her grandson has been able to make, thanks to the demolition of the Berlin Wall. As the memories unfold and intertwine, it transpires that her husband has not survived the Holocaust and betrayal by the erstwhile business partner and rival for her affections, who as an enthusiastic Nazi finds his way of getting revenge on the man who won the battle for her hand.

It’s the storyteller’s prerogative to base his narrative on real events, but Lichtenstein’s paternal grandmother did survive the war to end her days in Communist East Berlin.

‘I grew up in Wales’ he says in his lilting tones ‘and had a Grandmother living behind the Berlin Wall. I couldn’t go and see her so I didn’t know her. Apart from once when I went to visit her when I was twelve. I went through the Berlin Wall and through ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ and wandered round this extraordinary city. Bomb sites, grey, no adverts, a curious world. And then I didn’t see her till I was about twenty-seven. So I was aware of her, but as is often the case was not really aware of her absence until much later on when I started writing this play. So to my surprise I was really shaped by the lack of grandparents. The only one I had any connection with was isolated behind this wall. I think in a way the starting point for this play was the imaginary conversation I never had with my grandmother about her side of the story’.

He reveals that she was actually an enthusiastic adherent of Communism, her Jewish ideals resonating with its ideology, so she did not regard herself as a prisoner in East Germany.

‘When I was there my father was screamingly anti communist. My grandmother was screamingly communist’ he remembers. ‘At that stage (1969) of course Honneger hadn’t happened, the corruption wasn’t so clear, The Stasi wasn’t known about certainly by outside. The wall had been up six or seven years, put up because it was considered there was a brain drain, that the intelligentsia were being trained in the East German system and then leaving. So it was perceived as a way of holding people who would normally go away and this was a time of defecting Russian ballet stars and sports stars. And the amazing thing is that my grandmother who lived in East Berlin thoroughly approved of the Wall!’ We both laugh wryly.

‘in 1963 my father went over to East Germany to see my grandmother, staying with her and his half sister’ he continues, ‘And he heard tanks on a Sunday morning – he only told me this a couple of weeks ago – and he wandered out with his half sister and found himself surrounded by barbed wire. Some soldiers just came over and said ‘Get out of the way’ and they were at that moment building the Berlin Wall!’ I point out that as he speaks, he’s making a gesture like a man holding a machine gun or a rifle. ‘Well one the awful my memories of East Berlin was going through this checkpoint. People were on bridges with machine guns – they had Alsatians. They prodded with bayonets on the end of rifles. They were prodding under the seats, if anything were under those seats…’ his voice tails off and I finish the sentence for him – ‘They would be dead’.

‘You don’t show us that in the play because the Wall’s already come down’ I say. ‘You try to give her a piece of the wall – you take her off to …’ I realise that I keep saying ‘you’ so vivid is the world of the play and its characters. Of course I actually mean Oliver Ryan, the actor playing the grandson, Peter in the play!

‘My grandmother died a few months before the Wall came down’. I venture that she might not have approved ‘She would have been horrified!’ he rejoins.

In the play Lichtenstein never show walls or barbed wire fences around concentration camps, though their presence can be felt very painfully. But he does show us the building of the wall or fence that is a barrier between the Israelis and the Palestinians, bringing it home graphically as a young Israeli soldier grapples with the unenviable task of expediting the demolition of the house of an elderly Arab that stands in its path.

He’s been taken to task by some reviewers and commentators for trying to show both ‘sides’ because he appears to be drawing an analogy between the young Israeli soldier apparently obeying orders and that awful familiar resonating phrase ‘only obeying orders’ which is used by the German in the 1940s scenes. I tell him I don’t necessarily buy into this because the two stories are so different. The young Israeli is so weighed down by Jewish guilt that he struggles to find any way he can to help this poor old Arab gentleman, to make himself feel better about having to put the wall through his kitchen. He even prays he’s got the plans wrong so it’s only going through his garden. Whereas Lichtenstein does load his Nazi with reasons for an audience to find him unsympathetic, for this jilted lover uses the machinery of anti-Semitism to act out his revenge in a calculating and sinister way. So I tell Lichtenstein that I don’t think he’s trying to draw parallels between his Nazi and his young Jewish soldier.

Lichtenstein sounds relieved. ‘No – it’s great you can say that because I keep saying that it’s not a parallel, it’s a possible echo. It ends the debate once you say it’s a parallel. I’m aware it’s contentious and difficult’, he admits. ‘But my feeling is that it’s impossible to compare the Holocaust to anything else. It’s a European catastrophe. It has echoes in our life at the moment and I’m just suggesting that one echo that might be worth looking at is the psychological concept of walls. And the original Ghetto in Venice is probably the starting point’.

The Venice Ghetto was built to keep the Jews in. Israelis would argue that their barrier was built to keep terrorists out, although understandably, Palestinians trapped on one side see it differently. The programme actually quotes a statistic that attacks are down ninety percent since it was built. Although the play itself does not go as far as repeating the figure, Lichtenstein points out that there is a line in the play ‘your terrorists have stopped’. Since of course it is the Israeli soldier who says this, I point out, the sceptic would opine with the Palestinian, that an Israeli would say that …

There’s obviously a need for the Arab and the Israeli to confront the tension between them and just at the right dramatic moment, there is a flashpoint. In the wake of yet another suicide bomb comes the moment when the Arab is about to be thrown out of his house, with authentic sound effects of the demolition. So they attack each other not just verbally but physically. What works so well is that all those arguments Lichtenstein could have actually spent the whole play rehearsing come out all at once with a delivery reminiscent of a machine-gun. it’s so fast. Almost as though he had to get it out, I say.

He says modestly ‘I was very lucky to have a brilliant director in Terry Hands, who said ‘come on Johnny you’ve got to push this out and if you don’t I’m going to make you!’ And we needed a climax to that story – there are so many narratives running through it’.

There’s a charm about the way the Arab and Israeli are shown happily having tea together – that typical Arab hospitality, even if it is the calm before the storm. I ask how he researched his sympathetic Arab, whether he looked into Palestinian narratives, the Naqbar narrative. ‘I have Palestinian friends and they are very nice’, he replies simply.

All this is wonderfully filtered through the actors themselves, who begin the play by turning up for rehearsal and going through the ordinary banalities of their day also in the usually cheerful sounding lilting Welsh accent – the parking meter that need feeding, the coffee that’s running out – before immersing themselves in the series of emotional flashpoints often a matter of life or death that make up most of the play’s short scenes. Clearly you could label this as Brechtian, but as the actors, using their own names, go about their ‘normal’ lives, it’s the contrast that is so moving for the audience – and even for the actors themselves. The wonderful Vivien Parry, who has the role of Eva, certainly plays brilliantly being moved by a new speech as she rehearses for the first time a scene newly rewritten to reveal a horrifying truth about a wartime atrocity, so it’s hard to believe she’s not at least recollecting how she felt the first time she spoke it.

‘It’s difficult because basically I was looking at memories,’ Lichtenstein continues. ‘I wanted to compress a lot of emotional narrative into very short scenes for illustrative purposes. We do all know it but once you begin to look into the material, you know it’s worse than you can possibly think. So I wanted the play to stop and say ‘Why are we doing this? Why do we have to keep reiterating this material?’ A lot of people will say ‘Haven’t we heard enough about it’ and I suppose at one point in my life I did think that. But I now think that it’s a catastrophe that is still with us. Not just with the Jewish population but with us all. I think we’re still allowed to reflect on such a massive destruction. And of course you have to personalise it. I hope it’s just a play about small people’.

The play’s toured Wales and it’s been to New York. I ask how it’s gone down.

‘I think the play is about my struggle trying to come to terms with a lot of things and therefore it’s a dialectic, a debate’, he replies thoughtfully. ‘Some people want to debate these things, others don’t. And if you want to debate it, it can go anywhere. It went really well in New York and Cardiff – it does go well because actually fundamentally at the bottom of the whole thing is how do we live? We’re not alive for very long, the world spins – how do we live?’

‘You see a lot of what the play shows is the early 1930s’ he illuminates. ‘People getting involved, property getting switched around. It then goes into the 1940s which we know. To may surprise property laws are important, property is really important’.

He has an anecdote to illustrate this that is both surprising and touching. There is an old black and white photograph reproduced in the programme, a shop with its window glass shattered. He explains how six months after the play finished its New York run, he was with his son Freddie at the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. ‘I thought we should start looking at this material, quite quickly, because I didn’t want him to be subsumed by it all. And I just said this is Kristallnacht and that’s the beginning of when Hans your grandfather left. And he said ‘One of those photographs – there were only three photographs – says Lichtenstein!’ I said ‘I’m sure that’s your great grandfather’s shop!’ I showed this photograph to my father and he said ‘that’s right’! So that all came up after the play!’

Finally I ask whether his Judaism is important to him. He pauses to think and replies with a small laugh, perhaps of realisation ‘The answer’s ‘yes’!’

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‘Memory’ continues at the Pleasance Theatre in North London until 2 November. The box office number is 0044 (0)20 7609 1800 and the theatre’s web address is www.pleasance.co.uk .

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Related Links:

  • Memory - The play By Jonathan Litchenstein
  • Read additional reviews by Judi Herman
  • The Arab- Israeli Melting Pot
  • Holocaust Theatre

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    There is currently 1 comment about this article:

    1.well informed interview and a very good play
      Haya, london    (2/21/2014)


  • Judi Herman

    Jonathan Lichtenstein

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