At 12:37pm on 22 July 1946, the King David Hotel in Jerusalem was bombed. Ninety-one were killed and forty-six wounded, in the attack by right-wing Zionists on Britain’s headquarters in Palestine. Title aside, we don’t see 12:37pm until the closing scenes of this production. Instead, 12:37 goes beneath and before this grand historical event, to better understand the who and why.
Julia Pascal’s new play offers a panorama of both a Jewish family’s and twentieth century history, from Ireland to East London, then Palestine. Irish nationalism turns to Jewish nationalism, in their struggle against antisemitism and British imperialism. “Are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?”, an opening remark, indicates the uneasy relationships, and conflicting personal identities at play. (The former is preferred, because they kick less hard, and Cromwell let the Jews into England.)
It’s a binary world, where you can’t be both or neither. Your ability to dance the seven – the traditional Irish step – proves you not Jewish at all. 12:37 is likewise a play of two halves, on two continents, connected by the characters’ migrations.
Some things persist. “The Brits aren’t all bad, but they are all here,” one remarks of the post-war Western presence in Jerusalem, Palestine, then Israel. “They hate the Arabs, they hate the Jews. They love us all killing each other.” But this structure is a difficult marriage that doesn’t quite work.
Paul Green (played by Alex Cartuson) is forbidden from marrying his Irish Catholic love, Eileen. His long-term hurt – “zayde (grandfather), a soft name for a man with a strap” – remains tightly repressed, limiting his chance of deeper introspection. Eoin O’Dubhghaill (as Cecil Green) embodies the dramatic younger brother, Cecil, who relishes nothing more than singing for all in the synagogue, or taking the piss out of Oswald Mosley. Both give caricatures of Irishness, harsh accents, all eejits and goys.
Those who multirole also perform the most multi-dimensional characters – and strong women, often excluded from such narratives. Ruth Lass, as the family mother Minnie Green, embodies the complexity at play, remarrying when widowed, whilst denying her son the same privilege.
Lisa O’Connor dominates as both Eileen O’Reilly, and the Green’s communist cousin Rina Goldberg. As Eileen, she haunts Paul’s thoughts. But as the headstrong Rina, she dives into her hopes for Jewish theatre and women’s rights in the Soviet Union, proclaiming Yiddish one of their national languages.
Rina’s character creates what 12:37 seeks to achieve – understanding from lived experience. Having survived sexual violence in European concentration camps, her communist internationalism in replaced by a defensive kind of Jewish nationalism. “God died in Auschwitz,” she remarks, and scathing the British for never bombing it.
Loved by both the Green brothers, “from and to the same womb”, she sadly remarks of herself as the Holy Land. Her resolve, fired straight to the audience, reveals how the woman’s body so often becomes the location of conflict, or the nation. But if Pascal gives her the sharpest one-liners and rhetorical questions, their repetition dulls their impact.
The production adds subtlety to 12:37’s story. Jon Stacey’s lighting transforms the attic set into place of shadow play. A clever physical theatre act of breathing stands in place of sex. The script makes blunt reference to wars, political leaders, and protest songs like ‘Bella Ciao’. But dated newspapers, lifted but a few times, do a better job in signposting time and place.
Recent productions, like Jews. In Their Own Words, stray from addressing complex and controversial questions around Jewish violence. But 12:37 addresses them head on, in its effort to navigate homeland and national identity through personal histories.
Words by Jelena Sofronijevic
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