Getting to the heart of what it feels like to be an outsider

Getting to the heart of what it feels like to be an outsider

LYN GARDNER interviews playwright Maya Arad Yasur (pictured) and director Matthew Xia of Actors Touring Company ahead of the UK tour of Amsterdam

In 2011, Charlotte van den Berg, an Amsterdam student working in the city archive, made a shocking discovery.  She found letters showing that many Jewish Holocaust survivors returning home after the war were sent outstanding tax and gas bills. These had been run up and gone unpaid by the Nazis and collaborators who had occupied their properties while the Jewish owners had been in hiding or imprisoned in the death camps.

Around 80 per cent of the Jewish population of Amsterdam were deported and murdered during the war, many of them gassed in Auschwitz, including one of the city’s most famous daughters, Anne Frank.

An unpaid gas bill dating from 1944 dropping onto the doormat of the canal-side apartment of a pregnant Jewish violinist residing in the contemporary Netherlands’ capital is the starting point for Amsterdam, an award-winning play by the Israeli playwright Maya Arad Yasur. It is produced by Actors Touring Company, a small theatre company with a big reputation that new artistic director Matthew Xia says: “is trying to offer work with a global perspective that asks big questions about how we all live together on a small planet.”

Amsterdam, which has the urgency of a thriller, the tantalising appeal of a complex jigsaw, and unfolds like a piece of music, does just that. It takes us inside the head of the violinist, and back and forth in time to occupied Amsterdam and the encounters she has in the present. There are no named characters, rather a polyphony of contesting voices which slyly adds to the sense of dislocation and pressure on identity that the woman feels as a Jew in modern Amsterdam. 

Written by Yasur after seven years living in the Netherlands, it was inspired by the playwright’s own experience of what it feels like to be an outsider in a different culture from the one in which you were raised.

I didn’t directly experience anti-Semitism,” Yasur tells me, “but I did feel a constant negotiation of who I was and how other people saw me, or how I thought they were seeing me.”  There is a brilliant, unsettling scene in which the protagonist (who is never named, giving her an everywoman reach) imagines what others in a supermarket queue are thinking about her. She wonders whether she can pass as an American tourist or will be pigeon-holed as either a Jew or a Muslim because of how she looks and the items in her basket.

This is a play that neatly skewers the way we all judge and make assumptions based on appearance and prejudices.

There is such a growing intolerance for the other, the outsider,” says Xia, who is one of British theatre’s few artistic directors of colour.  “This is a play which gets to the heart of that feeling of being an outsider, of being seen as different in some way. That’s something so many people experience every single day.”

It is also a play that interrogates the weight of the past on the present. When Yasur was living in Amsterdam she became acutely aware of the way that the sound of her heels on the streets seemed to her like an echo of the Nazi jackboots that during the war years trod the cobbles. It’s a startling image that makes its way into a play that not only interrogates how we feel the world sees us but also the way a place or city presents itself to the world.

Amsterdam, after all, is a city of pretty cobbled streets, picture postcard canals and a reputation for tolerance and liberal-mindedness. As Yasur’s play points out, the city’s coat of arms bears the words, “Valiant. Steadfast. Compassionate.”

The motto was coined in 1947 to commemorate the Amsterdam residents who in 1941 took part in a strike protesting the Nazi persecution of Jews. But as elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe there were collaborators too: somebody betrayed the Frank family.  Like the rest of contemporary Europe and the UK, Amsterdam is not immune to rising anti-Jewish and Muslim sentiment.

Yasur’s play quizzes national identities and the limits of tolerance with lyricism and poetry as well as wit. It is remarkably playful: there are not many plays that have dramatized footnotes.  It doesn’t even denote which of the actors should say which line. That’s demanding on the actors, the director and also the audience. But what initially feels disconcerting, becomes enormously rewarding.

Directing Amsterdam is a bit like working out the rules of a game,” says Xia. “Even deciding which actor says a particular line changes the meaning and how that line will be received is different if it comes from the mouth of a young Black man or a Jewish woman. It’s a play that has taken me outside of my comfort zone as a director, but it is a piece of theatre that in every moment is fully and exhilaratingly alive.”

Amsterdam is on tour across the UK from February - May 2020, for more detail click here

Photo of Maya Arad Yasur by: Liron Weissman