A life story, let­ter by let­ter, on stage and on the ra­dio

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - THE­ATRE FRANCINE WHITE

YOU COULD very ac­cu­rately de­scribe Vanessa Rosen­thal as a lady of let­ters. Not just be­cause as an ac­tress she is cur­rently play­ing Doreen in Lady of Let­ters, one of Alan Ben­nett’s Talk­ing Heads at the West York­shire Play­house in Leeds.

How­ever it’s her own work that qual­i­fies her for that ti­tle. Of the 28 plays she’s writ­ten for BBC ra­dio, sev­eral are adap­ta­tions of let­ters, in­clud­ing those of Jane Austen. She was also the co cre­ator of the iconic Writ­ing The Cen­tury, a drama­ti­sa­tion of the his­tory of the 20th Cen­tury told through un­pub­lished let­ters, di­aries and mem­oirs for Woman’s Hour be­tween 2007 and 2014.

Her work has been nom­i­nated for BAFTA awards and one play, set dur­ing the Holo­caust, Ex­changes in Bial­stock, star­ring David Horovitch, was cho­sen to rep­re­sent the BBC at the Eu­ro­pean Broad­cast­ing Union Con­fer­ence, Helsinki 2003. She’s par­tic­u­larly proud of that, she tells me, be­cause it came from her own fam­ily’s story.

“My grand­fa­ther Eleazer Rozen­tal ar­rived here in 1887 aged 21 from Bi­a­lystok. I had gone there in search of my an­ces­tor Her­schel Rozen­tal. My fa­ther spoke of him as a stu­dent and as a brave young man who played his part in the Bi­a­lystok ghetto upris­ing. Later, much later, af­ter my fa­ther had died, I found out that Her­shel was a prom­i­nent ac­tivist in a Zion­ist Youth Group and when the Ger­mans took over the city he fled to the forests with the other par­ti­sans.”

Yet her writ­ing ca­reer was down to chance; her first dream was to be an ac­tress.

“My mother, Hilda, was very briefly a pro­fes­sional ac­tress. She was work­ing at Rusholme Rep com­pany but met my fa­ther, Leonard, who was a GP and quite tra­di­tional; he didn’t want his wife to be an ac­tress. It was sad in a way be­cause she was about to be the lead in a new play, and adap­ta­tion of Wal­ter Green­wood’s book, Love On The Dole.” The part went to a com­plete un­known, the com­pany’s as­sis­tant stage man­ager in the com­pany, one Wendy Hiller who took it to the West End and be­came a star.

Her moth­ers’ love of the­atre never waned and she took her chil­dren, Vanessa and Ju­dith to plays, sur­round­ing them with lit­er­a­ture.

Now a young-look­ing sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian, grand­mother of five, Rosen­thal was born and brought up in Manch­ester but now lives in Leeds. When she de­clared her in­ten­tion to be an ac­tress, she met with stiff op­po­si­tion from her fa­ther, who in­sisted she get a teach­ing cer­tifi­cate when she went to drama school. Af­ter train­ing she did two years in rep in Sur­rey.

She had to stand up to her fam­ily again when she mar­ried. Her Vanessa Rosen­thal in hus­band, Dr James Walsh, who died ten years ago, was with­out doubt the love of her life but, she says “There was huge op­po­si­tion. Jim was 13 years older than me, di­vorced with­out any chil­dren, and had been very prom­i­nent in the Com­mu­nist Party as a young man. It couldn’t have been worse! They had ev­ery rea­son to not want us to be to­gether. We did get mar­ried though. We had a very small Registry Of­fice wed­ding.”

When Jim be­came the Deputy Reg­is­trar of Leeds Uni­ver­sity, in 1971, the cou­ple moved to the city with their two young daugh­ters, Nerissa and Emilia. She be­came a mem­ber of the Si­nai Re­form sy­n­a­gogue, and con­trib­utes to the sy­n­a­gogue news­let­ter.

Be­ing Jewish is im­por­tant to her; “I’ve found a way of ex­press­ing my Ju­daism through my writ­ing. A lit­tle am­bigu­ous, con­sid­er­ing I led a sec­u­lar life. I was never any­thing other than proud to say ‘I’m Jewish.’”

Rosen­thal con­tin­ued work­ing in the the­atre, stay­ing lo­cal whilst her daugh­ters were small. On TV she made guest appearances in shows like Heart­beat and The Royal. As her daugh­ters grew up, she wrote two nov­els, the sec­ond of which was run­ner up for the Con­sta­ble Tro­phy Fic­tion Prize.

It was whilst sit­ting in the green room at the BBC in 1998 that an ac­ci­den­tal con­ver­sa­tion changed the di­rec­tion of her work. “A num­ber of friends knew I was writ­ing and some­one asked ‘how is your writ­ing go­ing’?

“A pro­ducer, Nan­dita Ghose, over­heard and asked why I hadn’t writ­ten for ra­dio. I said ‘I can’t’. She said, ‘non­sense, go away and write a play for ra­dio.’ That was how I wrote my first play for Ra­dio 4 Jerusalem North West”

Thus be­gan her ca­reer as a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to ra­dio drama. I ask her about the par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges of writ­ing for ra­dio bear­ing in mind you can’t have long pauses and mean­ing­ful looks?

“Ra­dio is much nearer to the novel,” says Rosen­thal, “If you work in ra­dio as an ac­tor, you re­alise you can tell an enor­mous amount of story with sound ef­fects: sleigh bells in the snow, a crack of the whip, whoa whoa, some­one com­ing down stone steps in Rus­sia 1910. You can do this with­out a vis­ual pic­ture, you cre­ate a sound pic­ture.”

There were many times that her pri­vate life crossed with her the­atri­cal one. For ex­am­ple when she and Polly Thomas cre­ated Writ­ing For The Cen­tury, Rosen­thal called on one of her own ex­changes of let­ters for an episode; “In 1964 I went on a kib­butz but had met Jim by then and we wrote lots of let­ters to each other, long be­fore the days of Skype!” she laughs.

These days she rarely acts but the lure of Alan Ben­nett led her to agree to re­visit Talk­ing Heads. She had played Doreen be­fore, four years ago as well as tack­ling Ben­nett’s Lady In the Van at the West York­shire Play­house.

“Irene Rud­dock is a work­ing class sin­gle woman who is not afraid to speak, or rather write, her mind: she writes let­ters to her MP, the po­lice, the chemist — ev­ery­one she can, to rem­edy the so­cial ills she sees around her.” So it’s back to let­ters again? “Yes” she laughs, “They’ve rather been my life!”

I’m sec­u­lar, but was al­ways proud to say ‘I’m Jewish’

Talk­ing Heads is at the West York­shire Play­house, June 14 to 23

PHOTO: ANTONY CROLLA

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