Arts: A long-delayed explosion

Twelve years after a row over anti-Semitism prevented it, Perdition will have its first night.
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The Independent Culture
At the beginning of Jim Allen's courtroom-based drama Perdition, the counsel for the prosecution arrives and tells his junior that some sod had written: "Anti-Semitic Bastard" on the back of his car the previous night. A similar charge was energetically hurled at the author and his text when the piece was in rehearsal 12 years ago at the Royal Court. To incite a storm of controversy in the press and among historians, a play normally has to have been performed in public, for however brief or aborted a run. But Perdition's peculiar fate is that it was axed by the artistic director just 48 hours before its first audiences might have judged for themselves what the inflamed row was about.

Since then, there've been a couple of rehearsed readings. This Friday sees its belated world premiere as a fully-staged drama in a production at London's Gate by the talented young Jewish actor, Elliot Levey. Once again, the objections to the very idea of Perdition, let alone its theatrical realisation, have started.

For example, the Holocaust Educational Trust has made pre-emptive representations against the theatre and its policies to the London Arts Board. What is it about this play that is so affronting to Jewish sensitivities? And why has such a manifestly honourable man as Mick Gordon - the Gate's Northern Irish artistic director, justly voted Most Promising Newcomer in last year's Critics' Circle Awards - chosen to stage it now?

In The Portage to San Cristobal of AH, his 1979 novella later turned into a stage play, the critic George Steiner posited a situation where Hitler is found alive in an Amazonian swamp, a withered old man who defends his actions by such breathtaking - and intensely thought-provoking - devices as suggesting that it was the Jews who gave him the lead where doctrines of racial separateness and purity are concerned. "My racism was a parody of yours, a hungry imitation," he tells his Jewish discoverers. "What is a 1,000-year Reich compared to the eternity of Zion? Perhaps I was the false Messiah sent before. Judge me and you must judge yourselves. bermenschen, chosen ones!"

Perdition, the work of a Gentile ex-miner and author of TV's Days of Hope, rather than of a Jewish scholar, finds similar uncomfortable symmetries between Zionism and Nazism. This time it's not the abstract insight, but the alleged practical consequences that are brought into focus. The play takes the form of a trial - a libel suit brought by Doctor Yaron, a fictional Hungarian gynaecologist, against his former assistant, Ruth Kaplan, an Israeli Jew. She has written a pamphlet accusing him, as a member of the Central Jewish Council, of collaborating with the Nazis when Hungary was occupied in 1944. His defence is that the Jews there were in an unprecedented position of isolation from the rest of the world. What were their leaders to do - foment heroic, yet possibly futile resistance or bargain with the devil and risk the many to save some, however few, lives? From Kaplan's perspective, this ethical dilemma is a hypocritical cover for self-interest (emigration rights for family and associates) and the pursuit of programmatic Zionist aims. His actions, she argues, flowed logically from a policy that found in Nazism a confirmation of its own ideal of racial separateness and that rated the establishment of a permanent Jewish homeland above the lives of individual Jews.

Elliot Levey was a young lad being barmitzvahed, and Mick Gordon was still at school, when Perdition first came under fire for everything from historical inaccuracies, the queasy mixing of fact and fiction, and rabid anti-Semitism. The publicity for the Gate premiere makes no mention of the play's troubled history: as Gordon argues, the artistes engaged in the current staging have the "luxury of perspective" - treating it as a new piece, never before seen, and so removed from the atmosphere of panic at its botched birth, and yet free to learn from past experience, most importantly in consulting and drawing on (with the author's co-operation) the many drafts the piece has gone through.

But what had first attracted them to the project? Gordon, it turns out, had bumped into Levey at a performance of Via Dolorosa, David Hare's one- man show about a trip to Israel and Palestine. Levey, who had been irritated by what he saw as the piece's chic fence-sitting, told Gordon about Perdition and urged him to direct it.

Perceiving it to be "a radical confrontation with varieties of Jewishness", Gordon also related to the play in terms of his own Northern Irishness: "It reminded me of what PJ O'Rourke said - that the main problem with Northern Irish people is that they are so proud of their Troubles. It keeps them very special and allows them to exclude any other opinion." In line with his policy that plays at the Gate should make some contribution to current thinking - viz the recent staging of The Colonel Bird, Hristo Boytchev's excellent Bulgarian satire on misplaced reverence for Nato - Gordon "deliberately programmed Elliot's production of Perdition to follow the elections in Israel, and to be in tandem with the unilateral declaration of independence of Palestine - that is not now about to happen."

Levey makes the eminently fair point that, far from being anti-Semitic, the play is "anti-racist at its core. Anti-Semitism must be eradicated and for Jim Allen, Zionism is evil because it stands in the way of that happening." The question, though, is whether the virulence of Allen's anti-Zionism in the published text stands in the way of humane, balanced drama. Quite apart from the lengthy denunciations, there are revealing passages where the playwright's ideological priorities distract him from the power-struggles in the specific cross-examination of the moment. For example, would the lawyer prosecuting Ruth Kaplan really present the alternative view of his client in such a counter-productive, damning order: "What in fact are you suggesting about Doctor Yaron? Was he a sincere idealist doing the best he could in impossible circumstances? Or was he a political fanatic, obsessed by Zionism?"

It's a betraying sequence that has been wisely reversed in the text Levey has edited, with the blessing and help of Allen, for this production. Gordon contends that the published version of the play has all the marks of an author reacting to the pressure of exceptionally stressful circumstances. In calmer conditions, Levey has reinstated a crucial, but previously discarded passage where a female defence witness gently but firmly dissociates herself from Ruth's habit of lumping together all Zionists and calling them collaborators. It's an example of how, in this new edition, there is a warmer recognition of the Zionists who were involved in the Resistance and of the many among these who perished in Auschwitz. There is also in this version a drama-enhancing increase of occasions when the opposition is allowed to score decisive points.

Levey and Gordon maintain that, up to now, Perdition hasn't had a fair chance because its characters have never been fleshed out or granted emotional ambiguity through performance. On the page, Ruth comes across as a serious weakness - ideological zealotry in a dress, with some perfunctory references to mental instability thrown in. Where are the subtly-mixed motives of true drama? What has come out in rehearsal, said Levey, is that a parallel motive for her bringing the case may exist in a desire to free her now-retired friend, Dr Yaron, from his lifelong burden of guilt - that her invoking of Zionism is also "to serve the higher purpose of bringing him redemption from perdition."

Will the audiences at the Gate be overwhelmingly composed of people who are too young to remember the controversy in 1987 and who have no problem identifying with the Israeli Ruth when she says that her people have a right to a homeland, but not at the expense of the Palestinians. Gordon and Levey won't complain if they are, but the pair of them know that the real criteria of success for this production is for it to change the minds of those who will have to steel themselves to get across the threshold.

From Friday, box office: 0171-229 0706