Have you ever had a play win you over in its opening seconds? That is what happened to me with Indecent, the moment the company (which includes a three-person live band) rose to their feet as the lights went down and dust began to spill from their sleeves. Lurching puppet-like to their feet, they looked like toys unearthed from an ancient trunk, relics of the gilt music-hall style proscenium that set designer Riccardo Hernandez has put up in the Menier’s black box space.
There’s probably a parallel to draw here, given Indecent was on the brink of opening in March 2020 and was shut down during early previews. In the eighteen months since, we’ve asked a lot of question about what theatre is, what it’s for, what are its fundamental parts and purposes. On the one hand, Indecent joins the somewhat surprising current litany of Holocaust-adjacent plays interrogating prejudice and fascism and Jewish identity on major London stages—but it also asks questions about the theatre, about the morality of art, that feel perfectly pitched to the current moment.
Finbar Lynch’s Limml, a stage manager, introduces us to the story of The God of Vengeance, a Yiddish play by a Polish Jew named Sholem Asch (Joseph Timms). In a Brecht-meets-Borscht-Belt series of labeled vignettes and musical numbers, we learn the history of this play, from being sneered at in a literary salon to finding success across Europe to ultimately faltering in its attempted leap to Broadway, as cuts to the scandalous material (including a lesbian relationship and the desecration of a Torah) can’t save the company from being brought up on charges of indecency.
However, the anti-Semitic Gentile mobs supposedly baying for the play’s blood never actually appear onstage. The harshest critics of Asch’s play, which is set in a Jewish-owned brothel, are always other Jews, fearful of reinforcing stereotypes in the eyes of Christians who are already primed to believe them. ‘This is not the time,’ Asch is told. But as the twentieth century marches on—the pogroms of the 1910s and 1920s, the rise of fascism in the 1930s, World War II, the McCarthy era—the time never seems to come for Asch to fulfil his yearning to depict his people as whole, real, flawed. The job of art—of theatre—these critics say, is to serve as a protective barrier. It is to persuade people not to be afraid.
The play, which debuted in 2015 and reached Broadway in 2017, was surely not written with our current fervor about representation in media in mind, though as the play itself demonstrates, these debates have been going on for a long time. What is the aim of putting a marginalised group onstage? To make them seem good, or to make them seem fully, complexly human? Who is such representation for—the downtown audiences who attended The God of Vengeance in Yiddish and saw their own community, or the uptown Broadway audiences who are out for a cheap thrill on a Saturday afternoon? Once The Normal Heart opens at The National Theatre, it could make for a fascinating and idiosyncratic triple-header with this and Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, as all three grapple with these timely and yet timeless questions about assimilation, identity, and what an artist owes to their people, be that Jewish people or queer people—or, in the case of Indecent, both.
The God of Vengeance was the first Broadway play to stage a woman kissing another woman. Like so many things about the play, is a relationship that means different things to everyone who brushes against it in—Lemml, Asch, the different actresses who play the lovers across Europe and in America (all played by Alexandra Silber and Molly Osborne). It’s a little bit too titillating (is letting a Menier audience of married couples snicker at oral sex choreography Good Representation? Is this contributing to the problematic use of queer women as a tool for shock and illicit arousal?—is it that, as a character puts it, “The intellectuals come to see the lesbians?”) and a little bit over-weighted with symbolic meaning (do these lovers really get to be people, or are they just walking metaphors, the other scourge of the token gay character?). But isn’t this precisely the question, precisely the trap? Just let a play be a play, and it’s always so much more than the simplest reading of its smallest moment—or, as it turns out when we finally see an oft-referenced scene from The God of Vengeance realised, a simple reading of the play’s smallest (and yet biggest) moment can create meaning that shines beyond the confines of any time, place, or play.
Indecent is on at Menier Chocolate Factory until 27th November 2021. More info and tickets here.