Simon Block’s adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel is a play of two halves. The first is for the most part light-hearted and comic, while the second is dark, moving and at times disturbing. This structure is used to convey the journey that the characters go on, both physically and emotionally, as they delve into their shared histories and discover a past that strikes them harder than they could have imagined. Caroline Bishop attended the first night of Everything Is Illuminated at the Hampstead…
Jonathan (Patrick Kennedy), the novelist, is the central character in the play. A Jewish American, he has come to the Ukraine to find a woman who saved his grandfather from execution by the Nazis, therefore making his own life possible. In this quest he employs local man and translator Alex (Craig Parkinson) and his grandfather (David Ryall) to drive him to a village which no longer exists, armed only with a photograph of the woman in question.
The first half sets the scene, and the mood is light. We see the contrast between Jonathan and Alex’s lives, and the attitude of Ukrainians to Americans and to Jews. Alex’s flowery and heavily accented English as he talks to Jonathan and narrates to the audience gives the play a comic tone. Equally, Jonathan’s attitude to his quest and to his ancestors’ country is at this point a rose-tinted one – he seeks to thank and reward his grandfather’s saviour without realising the horrific stories he is uncovering in the process.
In Act Two these stories are unearthed, as the trio find an old woman (Gemma Jones) who knew Jonathan’s grandfather and she gradually reveals to them the appalling crimes that were committed against her and her village during the war. This also prompts Alex’s grandfather to confess a secret he has been carrying around for the past 50 years, with shocking consequences.
As the burden of the past is placed on Jonathan, his naive eyes are opened to the reality of his family’s history, and this transformation, or illumination, is illustrated by the fate he gives the characters in the novel he is writing, who, like him, go from innocence to bitterness.
In the programme notes playwright Block says Jonathan’s character goes to the Ukraine to search for one thing, only to encounter something else entirely – as did the Hampstead audience did last night.