It is somewhat of a paradox to walk out of the theatre happy after watching something so tinged with sadness. But that is entirely a testament to Daniel Kanaber’s new play Shiver, commissioned and now playing at The Watford Palace Theatre.
The play opens with Mordecai Tinnaver (David Horovitch) and Rabbi Joshua Avod (Ilan Goodman) sitting in the bedroom of Mordecai’s house waiting for the Shivah of his late wife Sadie, to begin. The dialogue alters between quick-fire phrasing and short uncomfortable pauses, reflecting both the nervousness of the student Rabbi, conducting his first Shivah and the desperate Mordecai, who is determined to correctly mourn for his wife.
Sadie’s blue evening dress lays on the bed and Mordecai talks to it. When Rabbi Avod leaves the room, he breaks down spontaneously reciting Kaddish, in a deeply anguished way. Horovitch superbly depicts a man in the midst of extreme grief and confusion. He also expertly shows the complexities of a character that has devoted his entire life to a woman, who wasn’t well loved or liked by anyone other than him.
Ben Tinnaver (Ben Caplan) interrupts the impromptu Kaddish and we quickly infer a strained relationship. Mordecai implores Ben to pray for his mother, he begs Rabbi Avod to explain, “Tell him he has to pray now, to secure her soul safe passage, that he needs to do this for her.” Mordecai clings to the idea that Shivah is an absolution for Sadie but Rabbi Avod elucidates that the prayers are to help let her go. The sadness is palpable, so is the fight to understand love and the acceptance of death.
The narrative is beguiling and haunting but tender too. Horovich towers in his ability to switch between the depths of despair and flippant humour with familiar Jewish mannerisms. Caplan’s Ben is warm and watchable. Goodman’s Rabbi Avod is stoical but uneasy. Together the trio embody the conflicts in Shiver with real aplomb. They are helped by the set, with its almost transparent panels adding to the insecurity of its context. The lighting is exquisite, and is used to beautifully express time and mood, coupled with pitch perfect direction from Derek Bond.
Above all, it is refreshing and exciting to watch a new play that deals with Judaism without condescension or need for parody. Daniel Kanaber’s Shiver explores the ritual of Shivah with intelligence, openness and humour.