In 1907, Polish playwright Sholem Asch was advised to burn the manuscript for his new play God of Vengeance. The story of two Jewish women in love – one the virginal daughter of a brothel owner, the other a prostitute – it caused a scandal before it had even been near a stage. Asch refused to burn it, instead touring the play throughout Europe, and eventually America, where its entire cast, along with its producers, was arrested and jailed for obscenity. Asch himself eventually disowned the play, but nearly a century on, Paula Vogel’s Indecent preserves and reinvigorates its legacy.
This extraordinary production at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, directed by Rebecca Taichman – which is making a triumphant return after it was shut down just two days into its run in March 2020 – charts God of Vengeance’s journey over the course of half a century. We travel from its disastrous first table read in 1907, through its European tour, its scandalised spell on Broadway, and onward to the dreadful fate of some of its Jewish actors in Nazi-occupied Poland. The small cast take on multiple roles, though there is a consistency to who plays whom: Molly Osborne and Joseph Timms play “all the brides, all the grooms, the writers, the socialists”, while Alexandra Silber and Cory English are “all of the vamps and all of the vice, the scarred and the schemers”.
As if that wasn’t ambitious enough, there is a three-piece klezmer band on stage, providing all-singing, all-dancing musical numbers throughout. In one particularly dazzling song, about the assimilation of Jewish people arriving in America in the early 20th century, the cast sing in subtitled Yiddish – “What can you do? It’s America!” – as they shed their shtetl clothes and pull off their ringleted peyes. It’s a strange, bittersweet sequence, and ludicrously catchy with it.
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