The Retreat, Finborough Theatre – Review

Continuing its successful run of unearthing Canadian plays that have an international appeal, Finborough Theatre’s latest production is a play that first premiered in 1996. Written by Jonathan Sherman and directed by Emma Jude Harris, The Retreat explores the potentially sensitive subjects of Jewish identity in the modern world and how this has changed between the generations. Rachel Benjamin (Jill Winternitz) works as a Hebrew school teacher in Canada. However, when it comes to broaching with her 13-year-old students her ‘open-minded’ views about perspectives on Israeli-Palestinian relations, Rachel finds herself in ‘hot water’ with parents and the school principal. Seems like a perfect time to go to a film retreat…

David (Max Rinehart) and Rachel (Jill Winternitz) / Photos © Ali Wright

At said retreat, we meet David Hine (Max Rinehart), an independent movie producer who nurtures up-and-coming scriptwriters. Prior to David’s arrival, we’re privy to a conversation he has with his film-producing partner Jeff Bloom (Michael Fledsher), who is trying to get him work out some ‘kinks’ of their latest project. David, however, is determined to go to the retreat to meet the author of a screenplay, a script that reminded him why 15 years ago he wanted to movies. This screenplay has ‘something to say’, touches on the search for faith and ‘untainted’ by the tricks of the trade. But when David comes face-to-face with the author – Rachel – his whole world is turned upside down…

As a character, Jeff initially gives the impression of someone who is only interested in churning out ‘profitable’ movies, rather than produce films of merit, of substance. But as the play enfolds, we see that his motives are complex and what he says should rarely be taken at face value. In his relationships with David and Rachel, Jeff pretends to be ‘uncouth’ in terms of his taste and opinions, but for those with ‘eyes to see’, he has a shrewd mind. Much like Othello‘s Iago, the audience isn’t sure what makes him ‘dangerous’ is the degree of truth (or not) he’s telling or whether he chooses to speak ‘his truth’ to create discord.

In contrast, there is Rachel’s relationship with her father Wolf (Jonathan Tafler), who she visits most days. From their initial exchange we can tell they love each other very much. Their respective experiences, however, dictate their opinions. In the case of Wolf, his family was killed under the Nazi regime and was one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the nascent state of Israel in the aftermath of the Second World War. As such, his views of ‘capitulating’ hard-earned land to anyone else in the name of peace is unthinkable.

Father and daughter: Wolf (Jonathan Tafler) and Rachel (Jill Winternitz)

If Jeff and Wolf are the outliers, then David and Rachel are in the eye of the storm. Their attraction to each other is as much about finding someone in total sync with their ‘spiritual’ views as the physical. But while David’s marital status (initially) keeps the couple apart, it is ironically the evolution of the script that paves the way for conflict.

Involving amongst other things the real 17th century pogroms in Europe, Rachel’s screenplay shows how this catalyst led to the yearning from the Jewish community for a land to call their own and the ‘false messiah’ who was going to deliver this. But if Jeff’s ‘input’ in Rachel’s script has ‘deconstructed’ the nature of belief systems and made her tale ‘more human’, it’s done so at the expense of being about ‘higher truths’…

The Retreat has a top notch cast who all ‘bring something to the table’. They’re all able to flesh out the play’s witticisms, as well as talk with equal naturalism about fidelity, the minutiae of filmmaking and the rationale behind belief systems. As a play, The Retreat is just as topical as it was in 1996 regarding international relations, self-deception and being comfortable (or not) with ambiguity and/or differences of opinion. An invigorating time at the theatre.

© Michael Davis 2023

The Retreat runs at the Finborough Theatre until 13th May.

There is no performance on Saturday 6th May.

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