Craig discovers his rubber soul
PLAYWRIGHT RYAN Craig is used to tackling weighty subjects. His National Theatre play of 2011, The Holy Rosenbergs, drew on Arthur Miller and explored the extent to which the Jewish diaspora is implicated by the actions of the Israel Defence Forces; his version of Polish playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s searing drama Our Class dealt with the slaughter of Jews by their Polish neighbours during the Holocaust, while The Glass Room pre-empted the Rachel Weisz movie Denial by looking at Holocaust revisionism. For his latest play, which is at the Hampstead Theatre and is directed by the venue’s Edward Hall, he is tackling, well, rubber. The stuff weighs more than you might think.
“It is heavy and it makes your clothes, hair and skin dirty,” says Craig whose new, partly autobiographical play Filthy Business stars Sara Kestelman as a first-generation Jewish immigrant Yetta Solomon who battles to keep the family concern going across three generations.
“I’ve been trying to write this kind of family business drama for years because of my own family history,” he adds. “They started this rubber company. It was a classic story of immigration from eastern Europe: no money, no skills, yet somehow having to build something of your own to survive and make a life. It was a world within in a world; a state within a state. And this is what Yetta does in the play.”
Craig is at pains to say that the play is fiction. But the territory in which he sets it is straight out of his father’s shop on the Holloway Road.
“It sold foam rubber, mattresses and beds,” he remembers. “It had a very specific smell and when I was a kid, the large warehouse of foam rubber was a kind of early soft play centre for me.”
As with Craig’s great grandfather Barnet Cohen — who ran a market stall next to Tesco founder Jack — Yetta’s business grew from modest beginnings.
“She comes over, her husband is a Jewish immigrant and is working at a tram factory fitting
Sara Kestelman (Yetta) in these massive rubber tyres,” says Craig, explaining both his family’s back story and his heroine’s.
“In order to fit the tyres, he has to cut them, so there are loads of scraps. He doesn’t want to throw them away because that generation can’t bear waste.
“And so they made things: soles for shoes, bottle stoppers, hot water bottles — and sold them at the market in the weekend. So they had a weekend trade while they were still working in warehouses.”
And, as happened in real life, two questions arose in the play: Who inherits the business, and who wants to inherit the business?
“My Mum wasn’t really interested in me following my father’s footsteps. She was a factor in my going to university and thinking of something else to do,” Craig explains. It’s here that fiction and fact diverge. Yetta is determined to keep her progeny in the family empire.. “She’s ruthless and manipulative but everything she does is done with great deal of love and the best of intentions. But as with all these things the result is not necessarily what she imagined. “
Filthy Business is at The Hampstead Theatre until April 22
is partly based on Craig’s own family