THERE are some things that just cannot be said, irrespective of whether they are right.
That is the message that lies at the heart of Checkpoint Chana, a wonderful (daring) play written by the talented Jeff Page – and now playing at the Finborough Theatre, an off West End fringe theatre that punches way above its weight. More Cassius Clay than Barry McGuigan.
Checkpoint Chana is all about Beverley Hemmings (a sensational Geraldine Somerville). She is a poet in her late 40s whose success is more to be found in the past than the present. Back in the late 1980s, she was once described as the ‘Sylvia Plath for the Morrissey generation’ – one of many glorious lines from Page’s pen.
Bev is single, smokes, drinks like a fish (even resorting to drinking alcohol from a hot water bottle), has a history of mental issues, and is not frightened to speak her mind – especially when half cut. One night stands are a regular occurrence. To make matters worse, her Dad is at death’s door.
Her home resembles a sty with artistic books (a version of Norton Shakespeare is prominent) scattered everywhere and wine bottles hidden from view under her desk. When her latest collection of poems – The Olive Oil Lamp – is published, she is vilified (and in some quarters praised) for one particular poem, Checkpoint Chana. This refers to an Israeli female soldier in Hebron who at a checkpoint searches the bag of a Palestinian woman ‘like a nazi did to her bubbe [grandmother]’. She is accused of anti-Semitism.
The dean of a university where she is visiting professor is up in arms and threatening to terminate her professorship. It is left to her trusty Asian assistant Tamsin (Ulrika Krishnamurti) to sort out the mess.
Tamsin has been in Bev’s employment for six long years and has helped the poet through many personal crises – sitting her on the toilet at night when she is too drunk to do so herself and kicking out men from her home that she has picked up the night before.
But this task is on a different level. Tamsin does her best to mend bridges, persuading Bev that it would be worthwhile doing an interview with David, a Jewish journalist who she knows (rather well, it seems). She also posts an apology on Bev’s behalf on Facebook.
It is all rather ineffective sticking plaster because Bev is too headstrong. An email sent in the middle of the night to the dean – while she is off her face – does not help her career prospects, especially when she offers him a ‘hand shandy’ (interestingly, a ‘tittywank’ in Page’s original script). A disastrous drunken public appearance at which she reads her offending poem – ‘if you’re an artist you have to take risks’ – is the final straw.
It all ends with a powerful sermon from David (Matt Mella) who talks about the awful racial abuse he received as a child and the terrible desecration of his grandfather’s grave when a swastika was drawn on the headstone and the numbers one and eight scratched on headstones nearby (they stand for letters of the alphabet – work it out and weep). He still carries a pebble he took that day to his grandfather’s grave in his pocket.
As for Tamsin, a wannabe poet whose verse has been much ridiculed by Bev, she has the last laugh.
Checkpoint Chana is a play that treads dangerous ground. Yet it asks important questions. Are we ever allowed to criticise the Israeli state? Is all criticism of Israelis anti-Semitic? Is defence of the Palestinian cause anti-Semitic?
The play is beautifully written. Page has a talent for coming up with phrases that make you smile despite the seriousness of the subject matter. For example, ‘fifty shades of kelp’ (describing Bev’s wish to spend some time on the Kent coast) and ‘my crowd look like librarians with a Revlon addiction’ (Bev referring to the type of audience she attracts at her readings).
As for the acting, Somerville (think Harry Potter and Lily Potter, Cracker and Detective Sergeant Jane Penhaligon) is a revelation. She conveys all of Bev’s idiosyncrasies to perfection. Indeed, she plays the part of a drunk so well that you wonder whether it is actually alcohol she is drinking from the various receptacles she gets her hands on.
Somerville is ably supported by Krishnamurti, Mella and Nathaniel Wade who plays Michael, the person responsible for overseeing Bev’s calamitous poetry reading. All bring the freshness of youth to the stage.
Superbly directed by Manuel Bau and with evocative music bookending the play, Checkpoint Chana is a winner. Check it out.
Checkpoint Chana runs until March 20.