The haven of Jewish life is the Sabbath table — and as with all havens it is a place of refuge that can easily become a place of danger. The same could be said of family life in general, but while Jewish culture ritualises the mealtime in order to avoid distraction it is precisely the coming together of Jews around food that spells disaster.
The legendary Jewish novelist Joseph Roth wrote about the excuse Jews have made for overeating: “Food is not food,” he wrote in The Wandering Jews, “so much as thanks to the creator for the miracle of food.”
Sylvaine Strike’s perceptive play, The Table, has all the Chagall-esque components to make it a nice, whacky work of Jewish expressionism. There are plenty of warm embraces, a dreamy pace that references Chagall’s floating elders and lovers.
Food is sand and stones, dished up from a mighty tureen, as if the rewards of eating are also a punishment.
Back to basics, and the plot revolves around the revisitations of an old matriarch, played by Annabel Linder. She remembers the last days of her husband, Morris, now deceased for a year.
She looks forward to the coming tombstone unveiling. She steamrolls her children into performing poems and songs they intend to recite at the graveside. She remembers Poland and the struggle to survive the militias, and she remembers the strange route on which life veered under apartheid.
In this way, The Table is about two sets of remembering: for Jews it is the delicate balance between recalling being the victims of old and recalling being the privileged upper class, under apartheid, in the new society. (Of course there may be a third tier to come — when history forces an artistic look back at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. But that will be the Jewish theatre of the future.)
The children are aptly played by an accomplished cast consisting of Brian Webber, Karen van der Laag and William Harding. These are stereotypical, grown Jewish children in their element — competitive, needy, loving and loopy.
And then there are the “others” who make up the household.
We’ve been spared, due to guilt one assumes, extensive exploration of the black domestic worker as an integral part of the white family. What happens in this household is extraordinary. In her director’s note, Strike uses a cruel twist of fate, involving a domestic worker and her master, as her motivation.
Given the work’s offbeat form, Jane Hampton Carpede and Khabonina Qubeka do a conventional job of a sane mother and daughter caught in the eccentric world of a hyperactive white family.
What may irk some is the overall message of the play, that even though the social structure of old-style South African homes may not change to the benefit of the women who serve, there is room for reconciliation.
The Table runs at the Laager Theatre in the Market Theatre complex until September 18