Theatre Review: Rose – A Dowager Undaunted, Or Sit And Deliver

May 7, 2021

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Rose / Directed by Malcolm Purkey / Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg


It is chance that this run of Martin Sherman’s play about an 80-year-old Jewish woman sharing the details of a life lived through some of history’s most tumultuous years coincided with the death of Olympia Dukakis, the actress who originated the title role. It’s also interesting to note, in the foyer outside the Barney Simon Theatre, photographs of Simon directing a play called The Dybbuk, a term referring to a malicious spirit that, according to Jewish folklore, wanders restlessly until it finds a suitable body to inhabit. Curiously, it’s a superstition mentioned by Rose in one of her many culture-focused sidebars during her two-hour tale.

Camilla Waldman – considerably made up to conceal being very much younger than her character – is wonderfully adept at presenting Rose as an elderly but feisty character, emotionally fatigued by the weight of passing years but still occasionally able to shock or surprise with an unexpected perspective.

The script is just about an even split between the pathos that is sadly inevitable for a Jewish survivor of various pogroms (including the Holocaust) and the challenges of being both female and Jewish in the ensuing years and dark humour that makes the audience laugh even as it – apparently – helps Rose to process everything she goes with over the years.

Although it’s reasonable, given that the narrative covers a period of eight decades, that the play is long, it does feel slightly too much so, possibly because Rose doesn’t move from the bench she is perched on in the middle of the stage – again, part of the script, as she explains up front that is she is sitting shiva for someone. Waldman’s energy and focus never flag – she does a superb job with the material – but in a two-hour monologue, the balance of uncovering the minutia of Rose’s past and personality and describing (more generally) the places and periods in which she lived is not quite as compelling as the pieces of the puzzle suggest it could be. Perhaps a little less bluster could make Rose a touch more vulnerable. And maybe one or two more props or projections could heighten the impact of the character’s descriptions of events in the Ukraine, or Nazi camps, or in post-war America.

Still, it’s affecting, amusing stuff, and an act (if you will) of impressive stamina on Waldman’s part.

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