So we are now in previews for Chicken Soup with Barley by Arnold Wesker, but what a journey we have undergone.
One of the most informative days for the entire company was, without a doubt, our East End tour where we were led down many ominous side streets in the pouring rain by our trusty guide, David Rosenberg. Chicken Soup with Barley is a play about political activism within a family headed by two Jewish immigrants living in the East End of London: but how did they arrive here? During the entire rehearsal period we had Arnold Wesker’s very informative autobiography entitled As Much As I Dare as our trusted and number one resource, which with Arnold himself unable to attend our rehearsals proved incredibly useful. It’s important to note that the majority of the characters are actually taken from Arnold’s real life family, with Ronnie taking the role of Arnold himself. It was really exciting and unusual to have access to all of the facts and questions that actors would normally create themselves to form a believable back story.
But beyond the reality of Arnold’s family, we still needed to understand what was typical and true of life in the East End during the 1930s? What was typical of the area? What was the climate like leading up to the events of Cable Street where the play begins? David started right at the beginning of our tour by explaining that there had been a steady stream of Jews immigrating to London in the first half of the 19th century, with the numbers greatly increased in the second half and becoming, by 1881, a veritable flood. The reason for this being that 1881 Russia saw the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, and the terrible pogroms in Kiev, Odessa and other cities. Mass immigration of Jews and other minorities persecuted in the Tsarist Empire began, fuelled over the next few years by increasing penal laws against Jews in Russia and reached a climax with the great pogrom of Kishinev in 1903.
Many of the fleeing refugees had their hearts set on setting up home in the United States – and many reached their goal. But many only made it as far as England, either because they found friends, family or opportunities here, they were lied to about their destination or because they lacked the resources to continue the journey. Amazingly by 1914, 90 per cent of all Jews in England would live in the crowded streets and alleys of Whitechapel, Spitalfields and St George’s in the East. David described a sort of ghetto in formation. It was a real event for us to hear what the area was like this in the years leading up to the plays opening in 1936. It made the event of British Union of Fascists (BUF) under their leader Oswald Moseley, marching straight through this area all the more outrageous. However it also made the support that the predominately Jewish population received even more inspiring. Lots of the Irish Docker population joined forces on the day of the march to block the fascist’s path, in fact an entirely diverse community did, and a strong sense of unity really did prevail. The build up to October the 4th 1936, the actual day of the battle of Cable Street, was filled with mass confusion as the official word of the Communist Party changed from staying away to taking the direct action of blocking the fascists planned route; and although the order was still for non-violence, this wasn’t upheld. So many different instructions fly around the room in the opening scene concerning the plan of action and we never really appreciate what happened immediately before the scene, until we hear the endless changes of plans that David outlines.
The streets we walked around for nearly three hours were rich in history and there was something incredibly raw about physically visiting these landmarks that feature in the play and experiencing them as the characters would have on a daily basis. It was a brilliant day of rehearsals and helped us to understand (and later convey) the excitement and momentous sense of occasion which that day brought to the Communist Party.
The other trip that has really informed our work was the company bus trip to Clapton to look at Weald Square. Arnold Wesker and his family lived here, and it’s where the Kahns live in Act Two of the play. The flat is four floors up and in very close proximity to an almost identical block that Wesker quite enviously points out in his autobiography as having brick walls rather than the iron railings on his own, which he considered a cheap and inferior alternative. Standing in the cement space between the two flats we all stood looking up at Wesker’s former home. It was easy to imagine the commotion in the outside spaces that occurs outside during Act Three. With so many doors in the block, each representing a different family inside it was easy to see why perhaps in the play Harry claims to not know the lady downstairs. With long, exposed passageways that span the entire length of the properties, everything that happens outside is heightened by your inability to ignore it, or the temptation to just have a casual look over the railings.
There is also the general feeling of isolation and being considerably apart from the hustle and bustle of the East End where the chaos and promise of the battle of Cable Street occurred. It fittingly reiterates our protagonist Sarah’s struggle to keep her family and their faith in the party together in a place which no longer has a sense of community. It is this story which lies at the heart of our production.