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June 06, 2006

Mike Leigh's Jewish play: Two Thousand Years - Mike Leigh

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years
directed by Mike Leigh
National Theatre, London
Lyttelton Theatre
in repertory 28th March - 29th July 2006
(Cottesloe Theatre, in repertory 8th September 2005 - 31st January 2006)

Mike Leigh introduces his new play by saying:

Here's my Jewish play. I've been threatening to do it for years, but I haven't felt ready until now, when I'm well into my sixties.
What experience seems to have given him is a pitch perfect understanding of middle class politically engaged Jews living in north London. And as you would expect, it is a very funny play. But these days, plays need themes, so Leigh has supplied one. He is charting the moral and political evolution of three generations of Jews who have ended up in Britain.

Grandfather was a Zionist who loved kibbutz life but came back to London largely, it seems, because the women didn't much like collectivity. He is still sentimental about pioneers who shared their wealth, remarking wistfully:

We had real equality there.
The play is set at home with the next generation, in which his daughter is married to a dentist who tells rather good jokes. They are both secularist and socialist, and don't like current Israeli policy – the play is nothing if not up to the minute.

Their children represent an almost dialectical development of their politico-emotional heritage. Their daughter is an all-purpose campaigner for the good of the poor, and has become involved with Chavez and the Venezuelan struggle, while their son, a brilliant mathematician, is to be found in the conservatory muttering Hebrew prayers. He had wanted his mother to light the sabbath candle on Fridays, but she had refused. His parents regard him as a complete alien. His mother wails:

It's like having a Muslim in the house.
Here, then, the rootedness of Jewish life had curdled into a universalism without roots, and a rootedness without much grip on a wider reality.

You might say that nothing else happens, except that the wife's younger sister turns up. She has barely been in touch with the family for twenty years, has never married, and says that she manages millions of pounds. One of her first moves is to denounce the rest of the family for not having told her that their mother had died. She is a screaming neurotic, and while her time on the stage is a great comedy sketch, it has little connection with the play. Little, but not quite nothing, for it reinforces the conception of a Jewish family as something that's always there for you. Jewish family life may be a "war zone" but it also has a marvellous capacity to hold together conflicting passions. Once elected, you never actually get expelled. But having abandoned family and gone whoring off after strange gods, the little sister can no longer fit.

Leigh claims that his play is reflective rather than didactic, and basically this is true, but it does have an angle that cannot be missed if you look to his introductory remarks:

…what nobody could have foreseen in the 1950s was the extent to which religious fanaticism would come to afflict the world as it has. The confusion of a young person who turns to religion is a phenomenon of our strange times, although Two Thousand Years doesn't pretend to explain away Josh's dilemma in easy, simplistic terms.
But that turns out to be just what Leigh is doing.

Nobody would have foreseen these things in the 1950s, no doubt, because all the fanaticism was political, and socialists were on the edge of much of that fanaticism, and frightfully forgiving of it. But not all politics is fanatical, any more than all religion is fanatical. In fingering religious fanaticism, in general terms, as the problem, Leigh resembles those secularists who are opportunistically using Islamic jihad as an excuse for a secularist attack on Christianity as well. This is a kind of scientism in hob nailed boots, with the added advantage that in stigmatising fundamentalism and "religious fanaticism" in general as the problem, Leigh and other secularists are taking the familiar liberal stance above the battle. It is another version of "we all have our crazies, perhaps we are all guilty".

And in the local context of Israel, he might be construed as thinking that the conflict merely resulted from Judaic and Islamic religious passions. If Leigh actually believes that, then he may be identified, in the play's terms, as a middle generation secularist, and secular progressivism is his chosen orthodoxy. His very own fanaticism, one might say. This may be why Josh the mathematical son trying to return to his roots is so hopeless a character. The only way Leigh can get a handle on religion is by psychologising it as confusion.

One might indeed understand the play as stating the dilemma of modern secularised Jews, as believers wobbling back and forth between the universal and the particular. Josh demands at one point,

What does it mean to you to be Jewish?
Clearly the truth about Tammy fighting the good fight in Venezuela is that Jewishness doesn't matter a hoot. She is busy reading The Guardian and redeeming the world wherever she sees opportunity. And this rather dim position meets its corrective in her new Israeli boyfriend, the one figure in the play who seems to have the soundest grip on reality and whose appearance suggests that Leigh is not quite as confused as some of the other elements might suggest. At one dramatic moment when the whole family has risen to a climax of simultaneous shouting, his is the voice that brings them to order. And he makes the elementary observation that if someone tries to blow you up, you'd better kill him. Not exactly the pure milk of socialism and secularism, but refreshingly direct in a difficult world.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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This is just very consistent an analysis and brilliantlycomposed. I have been to Israel last week and that's what makes all the difference. You definately have to go there. Charles Krauthammer has, if I may say this as a non-Jew, put it pretty precise in Commentary recently: there is no hope in the Jewish diaspora. Only Israel will bear hope for the future of Jews. Leigh may have grasped this. I am curious to see the piece.

Posted by: Fred Hansen at June 6, 2006 10:12 PM
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