This Is What We Sang

Kabosh present a 'touching portrayal of the history of Belfast's jewish community'

Any theatre review which begins with a description of the venue - the bricks and mortar in which the drama unfolds - can easily slip into cliché. But with site-specific work, which Kabosh excel in, to ignore the physical location of where the play is performed is to ignore an integral part of the production.

This Is What We Sang, written by Gavin Kostick and produced by Kabosh, has as its site the synagogue on Somerton Road in north Belfast. The architecture of the 1967 building is itself impressive – it’s a circular structure, the roof held up by concrete beams that form the shape of a star of David. Through the tall, narrow windows streetlight streams in through spindly, leafless branches creating an atmospheric flickering effect akin to candlelight.

The staging is very open, the audience sit like members of the congregation and the play takes place on a slightly raised stage in the centre of the synagogue.

Atonement is one of the play’s main themes. Fitting then that it is set on Yom Kippur. The jewish day of atonement begins with the cast, dressed in white, entering in a solemn, ritualised procession to the sound of eastern European violins.

Although deceptively simple, Rosie Moore’s costumes play a vital role in bringing Kostick's script to life. Hannah’s white fur jacket and matching hat underline the social status her marriage to the older, wealthy Len has brought, in stark contrast to the emotional neglect she struggles with. The flared jacket and glamorous headpiece worn by Cissy emulate 1950s Hollywood movies, while Lev’s wide trousers and smart shoes suggest the wealthy, well to do, stylish and somewhat vain character that he shows himself to be.

Yom Kippur is upon us and the gates of prayer are open as the characters take their places at their separate stations, positioned at the edges of the stage. The distance between them symbolises many things – the separation between life and death, between the generations, between history and the present, and, to an extent, the traditional separation of the local jewish community from the culture and conflicts of the predominantly Christian society they live in.

Probably the most significant aspect, in fact, of This is What We Sang is its touching portrayal of the history of Belfast's jewish community over the years. Most audience members will not have visited the synagogue before and most will have only the vaguest of ideas about the jewish community, but Kostick’s play draws effectively on the oral histories that Kabosh undertook as part of the project.

Personal stories are interwoven with the fictional characters to chronicle everything from the history of a persecuted people who have refused self-pity in favour of hard work to the role of Belfast in the kindertransport from 1938-1948. At that time, as the Belfast blitz destroyed businesses and homes and brought the terror of Nazism right to our own doorstep, hundreds of Jewish children were given shelter in Magill's farm in Millisle.

Since the four central characters are all from the same family, inevitably their stories overlap. However, they never interact with each other. All the action and events they each recount take place off stage,
underlining the characters’ separation from each other and creating an athmospere redolent of isolation and regret. At points in the performance, this confessional device grates: it is difficult to empathise with characters whose stories we only ever hear from their own point of view.

It is left to the representative of the current generation to have the final words and his are significant. Having watched Cissy succumb to cancer, he relinquishes his original plan to sell her house in order to fund his own business and instead decides to put any profit into a fund for the elderly.

However, his eyes are pointed firmly westward to the new world, not Belfast or the eastern European lands of his ancestors. Atonement, he says, is too big a concept for him. What he wants, tellingly, is a grande latte and for the gates of prayer to now be closed.

Maeve O'Lynn

This Is What We Sang is on at the Belfast synagogue on Somerton Road at 8pm until Thursday 29 October, with an additional 3pm matinee performance on Wednesday 28 October.