What does it mean to be “a good Jew”? What does it mean to be a Jew at all? Those questions are thrown into sharp focus by this meaty new play, set in Germany and Czechoslovakia in the dark days of the Second World War. Sol is Jewish, but doesn’t really feel it; Hilda, his non-Jewish sweetheart, has a Nazi ideologue for a dad. Through a combination of bad choices and simple dramatic irony, they each end up concealing their true identity – and Hilda finds herself interned in a concentration camp which Sol helps to run.
Among a strong cast, Isabella McCarthy Sommerville stands out as the headstrong but somehow vulnerable Hilda. It falls to her to set the mood, with an electrifying poem performed at the family dinner table; and she also brings the perfect mix of compassion and pragmatism to later scenes involving a young child called Anya. Playing Anya, Luci Flo is both convincing and strong, and there is a genuine tension whenever she’s on the stage – because one wrong word from the naïve young girl could spell doom for everyone.
Jonathan Brown’s script explores some difficult questions of identity. Sol’s motivations perhaps deserve a little more analysis; it’s easy to see why he conceals his background, but harder to grasp why he ends up so firmly embedded into an oppressive regime. But there is, bravely, an attempt to understand how Hilda’s father has ended up that way, with a back-story that touches on collective guilt and the tendency to blame a whole people for an isolated crime.
So A Good Jew is a big play, which tackles big events and triggers big emotions. All the same, I longed at times for a little more subtlety; a couple of the plot twists, particularly the way that Sol is required to prove himself, come dangerously close to stretching belief. In some ways, the moments of mundane casual cruelty are more chilling; Patrick Carmody is quietly menacing as a stolid camp guard, who takes disturbing pleasure in wielding fists and boots as soon as he thinks he’s unobserved.
A few clichés do creep in. The dialogue emphasises that “we’re all Germans”, yet a Nazi zealot is the only character to speak with a pronounced German accent. The script also leaves isolated words untranslated, a habit I find more hackneyed than authentisch. But the staging is stark when it needs to be, and creative when it’s time to lend some interest – particularly in the grotesquely comic filmic sequences, which cleverly play into the themes of propaganda and concealment which run through the final part of the play.
Overall, A Good Jew is recognisably a new work, and is sure to benefit from some clarification and refinement as time goes on. But with effective, creative direction – and more than its fair share of stand-out performances – it makes for a thought-provoking and subtly challenging evening of theatre.