Mike Leigh is responsible for some of the best British drama of the past 30 years — both theater and film, including “Abigail’s Party,” “Nuts in May,” Career Girls,” “Naked,” “Life Is Sweet,” “Secrets and Lies,” “Topsy-Turvy,” “All or Nothing,” and last year’s Oscar-nominated “Vera Drake.” But even for a “national treasure” (a tag that Leigh wears a little grumpily but not ungraciously), the anticipation that trailed his latest work, his first play in 12 years, was unique.
The National Theatre announced it a full two years before Leigh had started writing, and for months before curtain-up the critics speculated about what might be happening in the off-site restricted-access rehearsal space for Leigh’s “secret play.” Until the week before it previewed at the National Theatre, it had no name. Billed simply as “A New Play by Mike Leigh,” no one except the cast and the National’s artistic director knew what it was about.
Of course, there were rumors: The publicity poster featured a palm tree against sand dunes — a direct clue for some that this would be a play about Israel, that Leigh had at last written a “Jewish play.” Leigh had never dealt with his Jewishness in his work; in fact, there’d always been an “Is he or isn’t he?” about him. His explanation for not identifying publicly has been that he wants to be judged “as an artist, and not a Jewish artist.”
That is, until now.
Miserable creatures, bleak landscapes, hopelessness seeping in like dampness: Leigh’s films are often criticized for their pitilessness, and he is accused of having contempt for his characters. So if the initial Jewish reaction to news of the play, “Two Thousand Years,” can be crudely encapsulated as “Ha! It’s about time,” a beat later this dissolved into something that felt more like apprehension: “What’s he going to say ?”
Set in the North London suburb of Cricklewood, “Two Thousand Years” opens with a Jewish family sitting around the living room in their socks. Dentist Danny (Allan Corduner) is married to Rachel (Caroline Gruber), who was born in Israel but returned to England as a little girl with her disenchanted ex-kibbutznik parents.
At the center of this comfortable domestic setting — with its pine Ikea bookshelves, its neighbors dropping by with vegetables from the garden and its endless cups of tea — is the extremely uncomfortable Josh (Ben Caplan), Danny and Rachel’s 28-year-old son. Danny and Rachel are Guardian-reading liberals, reared (as was Leigh himself) in what they speak of as “the movement,” meaning the Labor Zionist youth group Habonim. Their conversations are a series of laments for the rightward turn of Israeli politics, the anti-Israel turn of the left (“When did Zionism become a dirty word?” one character asks) and Tony Blair’s betrayal of socialism. Committed to secularism, they are appalled when Josh takes to wearing a yarmulke and experiments with laying tefillin. Rachel: “What’s he going to eat?” Danny: “It’s like having a Muslim in the house.”
“Two Thousand Years” starts out as a pitch-perfect satire of the reaction of secular parents to having a frum er in their midst, and develops into something altogether more subtle. It is a play about believing in things, or wanting to, or having once. Josh’s dabbling in Orthodoxy provokes his family, including his cantankerous old socialist grandfather (John Burgess), to reflect on where each member’s faith lies and how the person’s Jewishness fits into that, if it does at all.
The critics, almost without exception, have loved the play, though I was surprised by one who called the family “dysfunctional” and “neurotic.” This is dysfunctional? This is exactly how Jewish families of my experience speak to (or shout at) each other. We say horrible things, no one has any self-restraint — which includes but is not limited to volume control. The fact that two-and-a-half hours of Josh’s escalating rage ends with him playing chess quietly with his father struck that reviewer as rather odd, but it made perfect sense to this one that amid all the slamming doors and raised voices, something should be holding this family together without there being any need to spell out what it is.
The dialogue has been drawn out of months of intensive research and improvisation, and a triumph of this play is that Leigh succeeds in exploring every political and social issue of the day within the cadences of ordinary conversation. But the one tic in the otherwise perfectly rendered speech patterns of Jewish North London is the Yiddish tacked on to the end of too many sentences, like a punch line without a joke. It feels gratuitous, thrown in on the belief that a sprinkle of Yiddish guarantees a laugh. It does, but it is distracting and sounds phony.
So is it good? Absolutely. Is it good for the Jews? Unequivocally, yes. British Jewry is given a distinctive modern voice, a sense of humor and even — in Alison Chitty’s wonderful design — a habitat. The greatest strength of this piece, however, is the sensitivity with which it explores the ambivalence toward Israel felt by British Jews. I cannot think of any other work that has gone near this subject without casting internal conflict as either liberal squeamishness or treachery. Leigh treats it with such a lightness of touch that one feels forced to admit: We should have trusted him all along.
Nicole Taylor is a London-based writer and producer. She is developing a feature film inspired by the American émigré experience to Birobidzhan.