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Two Men Talking

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2007-06-05

Two Men Talking

Two Men Talking

Having played at venues across the country from Cambridge to Colchester, the stage show Two Men Talking arrives in London this week, playing at the capital's Trafalgar Studios.

The show features South African performers Paul Browde and Murray Nossel sharing their experiences of growing up white, Jewish and gay while living under the apartheid regime.

Browde and Nossel were childhood friends who lost touch with each other only to be reunited years later in New York, where they both now live: Browde is now a psychiatrist while Nossel is a documentary filmmaker. Here, they talk to SJ's Caroline Westbrook about the origins of Two Men Talking, how it's been received, and their South African Jewish background...

How are you looking forward to bringing the show to London?

Paul: I'm very excited. It's exciting to be bringing the show to the West End, it's an unpredictable destination for us, because we'd started off as two professionals giving a lecture which turned into a theatre piece. To be bringing it to the West End is magical.

Murray: It's one of the most exciting things. There was something about growing up on the southern tip of Africa where you felt terribly far away from the rest of the world, and there were all these things that existed out there in the world which for me symbolised the real world. When I visited London for the very first time, I was 17, and I saw Trafalgar Square – that was the world beyond. So geographically the fact that we are performing at Trafalgar Studios – I never expected that I would end up doing something like this.

How did the idea for the play come about?

Murray: Paul and I were both mental health professionals – he was a psychiatrist, I was doing my phD – and that was my primary identity at the time, I hadn't become a filmmaker yet – and the two of us actually had an argument, which was around the topic of who owns the story, who has the right to tell somebody else's story? And that's what happened, we actually had an argument about ownership of the story. It got pretty hot and it was feeling serious. There was one particular moment when we resolved the argument, by deciding it would be an interesting argument to re-enact with an audience. So we re-enacted the argument at a family therapy conference in Montreal, and there were six people there, who said 'well that's very interesting, but we'd like to know more about you – where are you from, who were your parents, tell us more of your history'. So we went back and re-wrote it over time until it became a presentation we gave, and we stood at podiums and we each knew when our time was to come in, and we gave this presentation. And then Dan Milne, who is this London based director, heard about what we were doing, and he was doing site-specific theatre in London and he thought it would be very interesting to work with us. We came for a week five years ago, and he basically threw the script away and told us to just tell our stories. The show works on a number of different levels. On one level we are storytellers and we are constantly working to refine our craft. So, that's one of the things our director has focused on – how we communicate our life through storytelling. On the other hand there's something really exploratory about it, in that we are exploring who we are and what it means to be alive in the moment at that moment.

What was it like growing up Jewish in South Africa?

Paul: Well for me it was probably one of the main lenses through which I viewed my life. I went to an all-Jewish school, so that except for a brief period of time when I went to a government school which was not all Jewish, I had only Jewish friends. My father was the head of the Jewish youth movement for Habonim and I was very active in that Jewish youth movement. My family was not religious but culturally and emotionally Judaism was a big part of our lives. But at the same time there was a bit of tension for me, in feeling very Jewish and going to a school where there were religious and Orthodox prayers going on, which I felt alienated from, firstly because my family were not religious but also during prayer time a lot of bullying went on. It became a dangerous and scary place, because none of the teachers were really watching. So it felt dangerous and I think now looking back as an adult gay man, I realised that there were lots of messages being taught to me through Orthodox Judaism that who I was and the life I one day imagined myself living was not going to be acceptable. So I felt like an outcast.

Murray: For me, the Jewish ancestry was never too far away from the surface of every day conversation. The fact that my grandfather came from Eastern Europe, that his family perished in the Holocaust, it was there, we always knew it. I felt like I belonged within a culture within a culture within a culture – I was English speaking, South African and Jewish. I was interested in the cultural rituals,like Friday night supper – every Friday night we had dinner, we lit candles – there was something quite comforting about the familiarity of that. At the same time my parents really wanted me and my siblings to go to a Jewish school because they wanted us to have a Jewish education. What this meant was going to a Jewish school from the very first grade, learning Hebrew and doing Jewish studies, which were my two least favourite subjects. And I was bullied at school for being different and for being effeminate, and for me there was confusion about Jewishness being this thing in which we were supposed to find refuge – the school was a place where I found myself very threatened. And I began to experience Judaism as dangerous – which co-existed with love of the music and culture – but socially speaking it was a very non-accepting environment.

Paul: But at the time South Africa was so divided in race and religion that it was rare to make contact with worlds other than the Jewish one. And that's what it was like, so you grew up in this country where you knew that there was so much going on around you – that there were people living less than ten miles away who didn't have electricity – and you were living in this opulent suburbia.

You've performed the show in South Africa – how was it received there?

Paul: Very well received, it seemed to be something that people wanted and almost needed to hear. I went back thinking 'who'd want to hear the stories of someone who'd left the country years before?' but really going back people were very open and interested to hear the reflections that we had on growing up in South Africa. A big part of going back to South Africa was that I'm HIV positive, and have been for 23 years, and going back to South Africa where so many people are dying of Aids, made it feel very urgent that we go there and have a conversation about Aids to audiences. We performed for Jewish audiences, and for gay audiences as well.

How has the Jewish community received the show?

Murray: Well the thing that Two Men Talking allows people to do is to see their own experiences reflected back to them – there's something about leaving the country and seeing your own experience from a different point of view. The fact of the matter is we tell these very personal stories about what happened to us and there's something paradoxical that happens when you do that. You share your personal story but you're also inviting other people to tap into their own personal story, and I think that's what happened. We made our audiences question what it was like for them growing up, and being Jewish. And most importantly, a lot of people who have seen the show have reflected on friendship. So I would say that because so much of the piece dealt with those early years of growing up in South Africa it reflected the experiences of the Jewish community there. So they loved it.

Paul: But there is a section of the Jewish community who would not come to see us. There was a rabbi who we invited to come, my mother called him and asked him and he absolutely refused to come. I'm sorry those people didn't see the show, but one of the great gifts for me in South Africa was when an old friend of mine who is extremely Orthodox, did see it, and came up to me afterwards and said, 'Thank you so much, I feel like I know you better'. And we've started a friendship again, even though our lives are so different now, there's a connection through our stories.

What are your family backgrounds?

Paul: My family were from Lithuania, my grandmother came from a town called Suwalki, and my mother's side of the family came from Odessa and Russia. I don't know very much but that's what I know. I think the family surname came from a town called Browde in Eastern Europe.

Murray: I've been on to the Jewgen website. Last year when I was in South Africa my mother handed me a whole lot of documents which actually belonged to her grandfather and along with them were my great-grandfather's photographs, and my great-great-grandfather's photographs as well as my great-grandfather's passport, so I know exactly where he came from, which was Panovich in Lithuania. My mother's maiden name was Shaffer, and I thought that must be her name, but on my great-grandfather's passport it was Sofer, which is scribe in Hebrew, so that's what they were, and then when they came to South Africa they wanted a more Germanic sounding name and so they changed it to Shaffer. My father's side of the family came from a place called Neustadt in Lithuania, which was a very large Jewish ghetto, and that wasn't originally his name but he created his name because each family had to surrender a certain amount of sons into the army, and they switched names around so the sons wouldn't have to go. The name wasn't originally Nossel but he took it on so he wouldn't have to go into the army.

Paul: I do know that my great-grandfather was an inventor, and the family legend goes that he invented the thing that stops films from jumping, but it got stolen from him and someone else got credit for him. That story has been handed down and you can imagine the effect it has on the family thinking.

Two Men Talking is at the Trafalgar Studios until June 23. For more information and to book tickets call the box office on 0870 060 6632 or visit the website.