Back in 1999, audiences were entranced by a performance from Olympia Dukakis at The National Theatre. Initially written with Maureen Lipman in mind, the play was Martin Sherman’s Rose, a powerful one woman monologue, which led one critic to remark that in the intimate space of the Cottesloe Theatre (now the Dorfman) it was like watching a movie without the screen.
Two decades later, and with the majority of theatres still dark as a result of coronavirus restrictions, watching theatre through a screen has become the new normal, and so Rose has been revived, and with Maureen Lipman, now much closer to the characters age than she would have been in 1999, finally taking on the titular character.
It’s set on the brink of a new millennium, Rose is an eighty year old Jewish woman sitting shiva, we don’t find out until nearer the end who exactly Rose is mourning, but we become certain that what she is mourning is more than just an individual, “I’m eighty years old. I find that unforgivable and suddenly it’s a millennium and I stink of the past century.”
Rose recounts her life from growing up in a small village in Ukraine to conquering the American dream in Atlantic City and Miami. Her personal stories blend with political milestones and at times she tells us she can’t remember if she’s describing memories, movies, or Pathé Newsreels.
Indeed, Lipman’s performance (filmed on the stage of an empty theatre) is often blended with newsreel footage of the appropriate time period, giving audiences a sense of what occurred beyond the wooden bench on which Rose now sits. It’s perhaps the only noticeable influence of director Scott Le Crass, but that’s because this piece of online theatre has been so perfectly directed that we give our full attention to Rose.
This is a woman who has suffered great loss, and that comes through in Lipman’s emotionally charged performance. But there are lighter moments too, and Sherman’s writing creates a delicate balancing act between comedic and serious.
With growing evidence of anti-Semitism, and the proliferation of right wing rhetoric, Rose demonstrates how little our world has moved forward. In one scene Rose is a refugee on board a battered ship named The Exodus, her journey to a new life in Palestine is thwarted by heavy handed British soldiers on warships (whom she fights with potatoes), and her description of the Government minister responsible could easily fit any of today’s Cabinet.
When the play first premiered, no one could have imagined that we would one day be watching a revival as a digital stream, and no one would want to have imagined that so many of the issues explored would still be so prevalent. But perhaps they would be able to believe that Rose remains a powerful and emotional piece of theatre that captivates its audience from the first words uttered.
Rose streams from Hope Mill Theatre until 12th September.