Four actors on an austere theatre-in-the-round stage grapple with weighty questions of persecution, prejudice and inherited guilt in this grunting gut-buster of a translation piece. Originally penned by Israeli playwright Maya Arud Yasur and, here, performed by Orange Tree Theatre, Amsterdam tells of a pregnant young immigrant living in the eponymous city, who suddenly finds her peaceful present upended by the troubles of the past when a €1,700 gas bill arrives at her door, unexplained.
Or rather, her story isn’t exactly told as squabbled over by the four cast members, with each scrap of the script suggesting, disputing, dismissing or verifying a fact rather than relating it. It might be a useful vehicle for zoning in on the fragility of memory or the subjectivity of history, although neither topic seems to be the intended quarry of the play. In the event, the quickfire delivery of the verbose dialogue becomes a little trying over its 80-minute duration, especially given the relentlessly heavy subject matter.
Make no mistake: this is a play dealing with the darkest of themes. For a city that’s rarely associated with the Holocaust, Amsterdam has quite the tragic track record; a reported 80% of its Jewish inhabitants were exterminated during the Second World War, while those who survived to tell the tale were forced to pay the debts of their persecutors. That’s the real crux of the story, and it’s one that’s deftly inserted through the device of the extortionate, unpaid gas bill.
Though incisive and hard-hitting in its themes, the play suffers from its unconventional narrative structure and claustrophobically sparse staging. The constant ping-pong of the dialogue makes it difficult to empathise with (or at times, even keep up with) the relentless rove of the plot, as it jumps from conjectures over what the envelope might contain and where it came from, to how Amsterdam’s contemporary natives may regard their Israeli ex-patriot neighbour, to the more despicable machinations of the Nazi movement during the 1940s.
These obstacles aren’t made any easier by the jarring interlude halfway through, which sees a rendition of Nazi propaganda music (curiously omitted from the online televised performance of the play) and the erection of a chain-link dividing curtain, the purpose of which is not altogether clear beyond its visceral impact. All in all, these directorial flourishes become more like fumbles and by the time the revelations come spilling out, the potency of their message has become somewhat smothered among on the onstage pomp.
Amsterdam can be streamed on YouTube here