It is a rare occasion that former Royal Shakespeare Company director Terry Hands makes a London appearance these days. For the last decade he has been Chief Executive and Director of Clwyd Theatr Cymru, concentrating on making that company the pre-eminent producing company in Wales.
Jonathan Lichtenstein’s Memory breaks that absence. The tale of lives affected by conflict in myriad different ways has toured around Wales, been to New York, and now comes to Islington’s Pleasance theatre.
A story set in four different time zones, it tells of Eva, a Jewish survivor of World War II Germany, as she meets her grandson for the first time in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Through flashbacks, her story is told as it unfolds before and during the war. The plot jumps forward to 2006 Bethlehem, as, a decade and a half after the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Israeli security barrier goes up. All of this is framed by the rehearsal room where Lichtenstein, himself with a family history directly linked to Kristallnacht and the Kindertransport, watches over his actors.
Vivien Parry’s portrayal of central character Eva sees the experienced actress leap from a young, vivacious 20-something with a life of opportunity opening up before her to an aged, lonely woman with too many memories that she would rather not have. With minimal props and no make up, Parry’s performance alone evokes the aging and hardening process. Yet possibly the most poignant moment of a piece rich in deeply affecting plotlines is when Parry slips out of her German character to become Vivien the actress, unable to cope with her character’s horrendous memories.
Lichtenstein’s story draws a connecting line through world-changing historical moments, filling them with individual stories which echo each other like the rumbling of doom. In WWII Germany, Eva and husband Aron lose everything; shop, livelihood, home, child. In 2006 Israel, Bashar’s home is torn apart to put a wall through it; many lifetimes’ worth of memories lost in the process.
It is the human emotion behind the events that Lichtenstein, Hands and their universally moving ensemble cast bring so vividly to the foreground, drawing audiences into the personal stories and leaving them questioning whether the world will ever learn anything from history and its individual and shared memories.