The Village Brighton Festival

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The Independent Culture
Joshua Sobol made his name in Britain in 1989 when Ghetto, his chilling tale of a Jewish theatre company in the Vilna ghetto, was produced at the National Theatre. It swept up awards. His new play, The Village, has had similar success in Israel, performed by Gesher Theatre, an acclaimed group of Jewish-Russian emigres based in Tel Aviv. Headlining Brighton Festival, and with a five-week tour to come, it's their turn now to try to establish a British following.

As you might expect from the writer of Ghetto, death is never far away in The Village. Its central character is Yossi, the dreamy-eyed village grave-digger who stands in the graveyard at the start and introduces the personalities who coloured his wartime childhood in Palestine: Yossi's Marxist grandmother, Dr Erde, his unfaithful wife and his mistress Sonya. Sitting in a row, they tip their hats and talk from beyond the grave.

The Village ends with death, too, that of Yossi's soldier brother Ami. And, as the play fleshes out his memories of childhood, Yossi discovers that dying is inescapable. Even as Palestine is saved from the deadly prospect of Rommel's invasion, Yossi's beloved goat is killed. Later, she returns to haunt him. Through her, he learns how the dead can live on in memory.

But if intimations of mortality are ever present, they don't set the play's tone, which is mostly nostalgic and light-hearted. Acted with a faux-naive bravado fitting to childhood reminiscence, The Village portrays an Eden-like Palestine. Sobol's village (the playwright was born in 1939 in just such a community) is largely insulated from the Holocaust. It is at once rural and cosmopolitan. Italian prisoners rub shoulders with British officers. Sayid, the Arab dung salesman, trades equably with Yossi's father. What we have, as Sobol said recently, is a "parable of a different way of life in Israel".

Whimsically episodic, The Village has little plot as such. So it relies heavily on the performers' energy to carry it along. Simultaneous translation doesn't help, flattening out the more emotional moments. But the real problem is the staging. If you were, say, an Iraqi terrorist attempting sabotage, it would be hard to design a more clumsy set. Much of the action is crammed on to a narrow, rotating wooden "O". Willowy grasses everywhere hide the performers' feet. Free movement is impossible, which saps the energy level terribly.

When, after two and three-quarter hours, leisurely village life gives way to the rat-a-tat-tat of history it's a relief. In 15 minutes, the UN establishes Israel, war begins, Ami dies, and Sayid goes into exile. Many Israelis, I'm sure, believe paradise began with Israel's foundation. For Sobol, it seems more like the moment paradise was lost.

At the Gardner Centre, Brighton, tomorrow (01273 709709), then Newcastle Playhouse, Cambridge Arts Theatre, Manchester Dancehouse, Lyric Hammersmith