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Two Thousand Years

Hurricane Katrina makes you realise how vulnerable you are. One minute you're here. The next you're gone. ---- Rachel
Two Thousand Years
Ben Caplan as Josh
(Photo: John Haynes)
Homer Simpson once wailed in disbelief: "Mel Brooks is Jewish?"

Well, there's no doubt about the family under the microscope in Mike Leigh's new play. It's clear from the start that 50-plus Rachel (Caroline Gruber) and Danny (Allan Corduner) are decent middle-class Jewish parents: pleasant, intelligent, caring and comfortable. Their living room is IKEA-styled, neat and tidy and located in cosy suburban Cricklewood. They're so assimilated that they ignore the Sabbath, enjoy their bacon and voice doubts about Israeli policies. And they talk: they don't read the books on their shelves, listen to the music they have, watch their TV. But they read the Guardian newspaper and they talk.

They talk, but do they communicate? And, are they really Jewish?

When their only son Josh (Ben Caplan) shows signs of committing to strictly orthodox observance his parents are aghast, disappointed and frightened. The normal family rhythms of conversation, tea and cake are disrupted. Josh's grandfather Dave (John Burgess) and sister Tammy (Alexis Zegerman) join in challenging his deviance. He must justify himself, his difference. Is it delayed teen angst, mental illness, sincere conviction, or something else? Whatever it is, it's a stigma. "Like having a Muslim in the house," says Danny. "What's he going to eat?" wails Rachel. Josh retreats into a brooding presence in the corner of the room, a mute challenge to the status quo.

The second act of Two Thousand Years ignores the tragic-comic potential of this situation and veers off in another direction. The problem of Josh recedes (and anyway, he's been a problem for years -- not working since he graduated with a first in mathematics), and we are introduced two new characters: Tzachi (Nitzan Sharron), Tammy's Israeli boyfriend, and Michelle (Samantha Spiro), Rachel's sister. As Tzachi tells us at length about himself -- his Biblical name, his archaeologist father and his army service -- he represents a link to a distant past that the family has forgotten, and a dangerous present they have only experienced at second hand through the media. But at least he is polite. Michelle isn't, and she challenges the family in a different way, having walked out on them eleven years before.

Much of Mike Leigh's work uses the same dramatic arc, where the slow accumulation of mundane detail leads to a single violent climax. Two Thousand Years offers two. As the family erupts into a beautifully orchestrated display of collective hysteria, Tzachi strides forward and dominates them. . .without using words. When he orders Michelle to sit down, Samantha Spiro brilliantly conveys a career woman's fierce indignation drowning in waves of lust.

This is just one of the aspects of the play that leave one uncomfortable rather than dramatically challenged. Are we meant to admire an authoritarian figure who shuts these people up and brings them to their senses? Are these long sections of dialogue intended to be quite so dull? There's a fine line between suggesting banality and being banal and for me this play crosses it too often. Should the biggest laugh of the evening come from the old lighting-a-cigarette-after-the-coughing-fit gag? Can't we be trusted to believe that these people will argue at length about precisely how long ago something happened, or the best route from Hendon to Cricklewood without having to see them do it? Why use yesterday's newspaper headlines, when these have a very rapid half-life and require late text changes that seem to leave the performers a little uncomfortable?

And are the characters themselves, however well acted, too close to stereotypes? Alexis Zegerman and Nitzan Sharron give real life to Tammy and Tzachi. But although Ben Caplan maintains Josh's brooding stare very well, two hours' exposure to it induces bathos and it's hard not to think of Harry Enfield's terrible teenager Kevin in a speechless strop. More seriously, Mash, transparently crow-barred into the play to liven things up, is ridiculed as a self-deluded and rootless cosmopolitan, though one suspects her real offences are desertion of family and biological duty to reproduce. However well played, Mash is a grisly cliché, punished without mercy and dispatched without ceremony: she might almost have wandered in from another play.

While the audience enjoyed it tremendously and it has excellent performances and a stunning set by Alison Chitty, Two Thousand Years seemed under-cooked to me. At its heart lies the mystery of Josh. Is his faith a counterpoint to the mundane concerns of those around him? Does he represent the transcendence of scripture against the trivia of the daily paper? Has he faced up to the pointlessness of life, the certainty of decay and death, and wrapped himself in religion while the others deal with reality by focussing on their allotments, holidays, appointments and love affairs? Do the events, big and small, that stock our lives -- a war, a crisis, a hurricane, a death, a birth -- mean as little to him as they meant to the God of the Book of Job, mere words multiplied without knowledge? It's possible to read him this way.

On the other hand he might simply be exhausted by his ageing relatives' world weary harping on about the death of socialism, the decay of Zionism, and what it means to be Jewish. Again, his retreat from dialogue could be a denial of what it means to be human and social, a step down the path towards unreason and fanaticism.

Leigh may want us to understand that conversation, whether about peace in the Middle East or the eradication of greenfly, is a necessity rather than a habit. If so, the image of strong man Tzachi silencing the chatter is an uncomfortable one. So is the final suggestion that the symbolic sacrifice of its most vulnerable member can bring peace to a family.

Leigh is a master craftsman and has been absent from the stage for too long and this play is sold out for its National Theatre run and it seems likely to tour and transfer. Thus, by the time you see Two Thousand Years, it it may well have changed if it insists on chasing the headlines of tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that . . . 

Two Thousand Years
A new play by Mike Leigh
Directed by Mike Leigh

With: John Burgess, Ben Caplan, Allan Corduner, Adam Godley, Caroline Gruber, Nitzan Sharron, Samantha Spiro, Alexis Zegerman
Design: Alison Chitty
Lighting: Paul Pyant
Sound: John Leonard
Music: Gary Yershorn
Running time: Two hours twenty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking at the Cottesloe until 31st January 2006 but sold out with returns and day seats only. Queues forming early for day seats.
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 16th September 2006 performance at the Cottesloe Theater, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo Garden)
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