Ping! There’s a bell on the desk in Amsterdam. The kind of calling-for-immediate-attention bell that invites a sharp smack with palm or finger, and drives Basil Fawlty to the very verge of derangement. Ping! It’s a comedy device – an indicator of short-fuse entitlement, an enhancer of retro-farce chaos. It retains its comic tinge in Amsterdam, by Israeli playwright Maya Arad Yasur; which is unnerving, given the context.
There are actors in Amsterdam, but no characters. Together the cast assemble the story of a Jewish Israeli violinist, heavily pregnant and living in Amsterdam, who receives a demand for an unpaid gas bill for her apartment, dating back to the 1940s. The unsettling letter plays on her mind during appointments with her agent and gynaecologist, at the supermarket, in her home. How do people see her? As a foreigner, an exotic, a freak or a threat? And how does she see them? Curious, prurient, actively hostile? Do she and her adopted city really know each other, and how at home does she feel?
The news story behind the play is fascinating. In 2010, a student named Charlotte van den Berg, working in the Amsterdam city archives, discovered demands for unpaid rent and utility bills dating back to the 1940s. In many cases, the city was exacting fines for periods when the properties’ owners had been in concentration camps. Van den Berg found the city’s correspondence intransigent, and the cases apparently unresolved.
Arad Yasur wondered who lived in these forcibly emptied properties. Might Nazi occupiers have been there, with returning Jewish residents being asked to fulfil their persecutors’ debts? And what did the official response suggest about a nation, 75% of whose Jewish population was killed during the Holocaust? These questions have uncomfortable currency; only in 2016 did Amsterdam offer to make reparations to the Jewish community.
For all its grave subject matter, Amsterdam is a frisky play. Piecing together the protagonist’s story, spiralling through her anxieties and then hypothesising a somewhat telenovela love triangle about the wartime apartment – these see the four actors lobbing phrases into the mix, rejecting or repeating them, capering through their collective storytelling. This is a welcome production at a time when new foreign-language plays rarely appear on British stages; yet neither the translation by Eran Edry nor Matthew Xia’s direction (at the Orange Tree in Richmond) quite support this frolicsome register – an attentive audience stayed shtum, despite strenuous work from the cast.
Whenever a Dutch phrase occurs, an actor will ping the bell, prompting the speaker to rush to a microphone and solemnly translate it, however obvious or banal (‘slippers’, ‘balls’). These moments are often larky but can also be gravely informative, as when we learn that Amsterdam’s motto was amended after the war to Heldhaftig, Vastberaden, Barmhartig (Heroic, Steadfast, Compassionate), reflecting the residents’ protests against persecution of the Jewish population. The bell, so often a distraction, becomes a call to attention.
Who deciphers what in Amsterdam, and to whom? The actors translate mostly Dutch phrases to an English-speaking audience. But the play also translates an Israeli script into English; a military context to a peacetime one; a historical reality to a present that some fear is losing sight of it (Auschwitz selfies are a current example). The violinist imagines Amsterdammers looking at her and seeing otherness in her face, her hair, her voice. They need, she imagines, translation, because in present-day Europe there’s so much to disturb people who thought they understood their time and place: so many pings of unease, of suspicion, of strangeness in their midst.
The violinist must also translate this world to herself. The thoughts that hurtle round her mind often skew paranoid. These are the anxieties that ruffle a Jew in Europe, an Israeli abroad, and each ping serves as a reminder of difference, a nudge of non-belonging. It’s a ping of unease that we may register more and more now, whoever we are. Amsterdam reminds us what happens when a ping for attention becomes a cry of alarm.
Image: Fiston Barek in Amsterdam. Photo by Helen Murray.
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