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cling to me like ivy

Samantha Ellis’s new play about the certainties – and otherwise – of Orthodox Jewish life gets a run out at the Rep Door until 26th February. Paula Elenor checks it out.

The play is set in May 2004, the time of “Sheitel-gate” when (just in case you can’t remember) an off-the–cuff remark by Victoria Beckham about her hair extensions, triggered an improbable sequence of events culminating in Orthodox Jews throwing Sheitels – the wigs worn by married women in the community – onto bonfires in New York, London and Jerusalem.
Why? Because the hair for the wigs had apparently originated from Hindu women in India who had “sacrificed” their beauty as part of a pledge with the gods – for a child to recover from typhoid, for example.
“Idolatry!” declared the religious authorities, and so started of a wave of hysteria across the Orthodox Jewish world.
You really couldn’t make it up, but Samantha Ellis does follow through with an interesting scenario in which she explores the comic and serious consequences of “Sheitel-gate”. For the sight of distressed married women walking around in swimming caps or fright wigs, while their men-folk frantically scoured the Talmud for clues to resolve this theological nightmare is not that funny, is it?
Ellis focuses on the people most affected by this controversy – the Orthodox Jewish women who carefully separate out the meat and the dairy in their colour-coded kosher kitchens, and who actually looked forward to wearing their first Sheitel on their wedding day
And so to the characters. Rivka, the daughter of the local Rabbi, is to be married to her childhood sweetheart, David in two weeks. It’s a love match, but according to custom, they have never kissed or touched each other at all.
Rivka, trying on her dead mother’s wedding dress and her new wig, looks forward to a perfect wedding, but what with the expectations of her family and community, as well as natural anxieties about her wedding night, it’s hardly surprising that the Beckham furore spooks her.
Her best friend Leela has already achieved the apotheosis of migrant aspiration: she is in medical school (approved by her Indian mother) and has a white anarchist boyfriend (not approved by Indian mother).
Add to the mix her Rabbi father, Shmuley, and Malka, her maternal grandmother whose own grandparents “walked across Russia” to escape persecution, and it is hardly surprising that her certainties about identity and morality take a nose-dive.
Her father believes that some form of youthful rebellion is perfectly normal. But will he be perfectly relaxed about Rivka’s chosen mode of rebellion? Up a tree with Patrick – Leela’s dishy boyfriend - defying tree destroying bulldozers (and the police) in a forced eviction?
The comic potential is amply mined by Ellis, although rebellion as well as conformity has serious consequences, as Rivka soon discovers.
Amanda Boxer (Malka) makes full use of the comic opportunities in the writing, the most humorous scene being when she drunkenly reveals a sexual indiscretion that threatened her marriage in the “old days” to the startled Rivka.
The writer has a brilliant ear for speech; Malka’s archaic Jewish intonations and expressions are used for great comic asides and interjections which verge on the stereotypical. Thankfully for the audience, there is another side to the wise-cracking Jewish matriarch. Her stoical acceptance of the limitations on personal freedom imposed by her community, is equally balanced by hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness and an underlying bitterness about life’s disappointments which nearly crush Rivka at the end.
Emily Holt making her professional theatrical debut was very convincing as Rivka, conveying the character’s earnestness and vulnerability as the certainties of her belief system start to ebb away.
There is much to enjoy in this production. The play itself is interesting and very amusing in places. But a few parts did not gel for me. The characters of Leela (whose mother had “sacrificed” her hair in India in order to save her daughter’s life) and Patrick – the tree-sitting eco-warrior – fail to convince and, against the other more subtle characterisations, stand out as mere devices.


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