It sometimes feels like barely a day goes by without someone in the public eye saying or doing something ill-advised, only to back down under the inevitable public outcry and issue a hastily written apology. This is the situation in which we find Bev Hemmings (Geraldine Somerville), the central character in Jeff Page’s Checkpoint Chana. Her latest collection of poems has just been published, with one particular piece attracting widespread attention and criticism for a line that many view as anti-Semitic. Even Bev’s loyal PA Tamsin (Ulrika Krishnamurti) isn’t quite sure how she feels about it, but she throws herself nonetheless into damage control – a task made more tricky by the fact her boss doesn’t think she’s done anything wrong.
And the truth is that for all her many faults, Bev seems far more guilty of poor judgment and extreme naivety than of any actual prejudice. She doesn’t want to apologise because she didn’t mean any harm – and looked at from an entirely rational perspective, she might have a point. Except when it comes to anti-Semitism, taking emotion out of the equation is a very difficult thing to do, and it’s her failure to appreciate the strength of feeling on both sides that’s brought Bev to this point. This, along with a dying father, a serious drink problem (as the play opens, she swigs wine surreptitiously from a hot water bottle – an odd addition from director Manuel Bau, given that Bev’s love of booze is soon revealed to be an extremely open secret) and a career that’s hanging by a thread, provides us with plenty of reasons to pity rather than condemn her, should we choose to do so.
Despite appearances, Checkpoint Chana isn’t a particularly political play, and anyone hoping to engage in sturdy debate about the Middle East is likely to come away feeling unsatisfied. Page steers clear of discussing the historical background to the furore, choosing instead to focus on Bev’s personal turmoil. Geraldine Somerville perfectly captures the complexity of her character, making her pathetic enough that we find it hard to hate her, but stopping far short of being someone we can admire. There are references to a successful past career but those days are long gone, and Bev now seems almost to revel in her self-destructive choices.
The other characters have less depth to them, but the actors – Ulrika Krishnamurti, Matt Mella and Nathaniel Wade – do well with the material they have, under the close scrutiny of an audience who are seated in the round mere inches away. Tamsin’s relationship with her boss is interesting to watch, the two more like patient/carer than employer/employee but with a bit of witty banter thrown in, while sympathetic Jewish journalist David and arts centre employee Michael each offer Bev a shot at redemption, if she’s willing to take it.
As a discussion of the ins and outs of the Middle East conflict, Checkpoint Chana doesn’t have a great deal to say (although to be fair you’d need a bit more than 70 minutes to get into that subject properly). But if political controversy is relegated to the side dish, the main course – a thoughtful and well-acted study of a woman on the brink – is still more than enough to satisfy.
Checkpoint Chana is at Finborough Theatre until 20th March.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉