Acts of law

JEST's latest production has an unusual twist: An actor's grandfather wrote his own version of the story more than 30 years ago.

jest (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
When director Leah Stoller chose the Terence Rattigan play The Winslow Boy for the JEST theater company's latest production, she had no idea that one of the lead actors had a family history regarding the subject matter. The play, written in 1946, is based on an actual event that took place in England in 1908 and set a legal precedent. The story revolves around George Archer-Shee, a 13-year-old cadet at Osborne Royal Naval College who was accused of stealing a postal order from a fellow cadet and was expelled without a trial. His older brother, Major Martin Archer-Shee, was convinced of his innocence and persuaded their father to hire a lawyer. It was imperative for the family's honor to clear the boy's name. If not, the family would have been shunned by society, and the boy's life would have been ruined by the stain on his character. The most respected lawyer of the time, Sir Edward Carson, believed the boy was innocent and insisted that the case be taken to court. In fact, it went all the way to the supreme court. Rattigan changed the names of the characters and some of their qualities to achieve more dramatic impact, but the plot essentially remained true to the facts as he saw them. Striking a chord with audiences after it debuted in London, the play had a very successful run on Broadway and was twice adapted into a film - one directed by Anthony Asquith in 1948 and the other in 1999 by David Mamet. In the upcoming Jerusalem English Speaking Theater production, the role of the barrister who defends the boy, Sir Robert Morton, is played by veteran actor Simon Montagu. Falling under the umbrella of "truth is stranger than fiction," the actor's grandfather, Captain Ewen Montagu (1901-1985), had written a book about the proceedings entitled The Archer-Shee Case, published in 1974. A naval intelligence officer and the judge advocate of the British fleet, Captain Montagu was also the resident legal expert for the BBC radio program Your Verdict. He wrote the book within the context of the series entitled "Celebrated Trials." "I remember when my grandfather was writing the book some 30 years ago," recalls Montagu. "He consulted with members of the Archer-Shee family as he went along." "But," he adds, "it was embarrassing for him because he actually thought the boy was guilty." He didn't know how the family would take it if he said so in print, so he only hinted at it in the book, says Montagu. "The reader should make up his own mind." In the case of Rattigan's play, however, the truth is fictionalized anyhow, although the playwright did believe that the "Winslow" boy was innocent. "The role of the barrister is a magnificent one," says Montagu. "It gives an actor the opportunity to go all out." His great regret, he admits, is that he can't talk to his grandfather about it now. "I would ask him things about the case, and I would try to get some insight into how to be a lawyer." Be that as it may, Montagu says that "I echo his mannerisms and his delivery on stage." And well he knew them, as Montagu and his two siblings were very close with Captain Ewen, spending every summer of their youth with him at his beach house outside London. He laughs as he remarks that in his grandfather's write-up in the Who's Who of London, under the heading of "Hobbies" he had entered "Grandchildren." Notwithstanding the family background working for him in the wings, Montagu says he is enjoying the play immensely. "We are a cohesive group of people," he comments. The cast of 10 actors in this comedic drama range in age from 15 to 70, says Stoller. "The boy who plays Winslow - Coren Feldman - is American," she says. He started with us when he was 11; now he's 15." Another 15-year-old boy on the scene is Josh Trachtenberg, the assistant director whom Stoller is honing to ultimately take over her role. "He has been with us since he was 10. Hopefully in two years he will be able to direct a play on his own," says the 78-year-old director who has overseen some 40 JEST productions since 1986. Stoller selected The Winslow Boy because "I always loved it" and because she felt that the theme could speak volumes to local audiences today, especially the younger generation. "The play is essentially about one man fighting against the establishment," she says. "It shows kids that they can strive for what they believe in, that they can take a stand. In the US we demonstrated all the time: for causes such as Soviet Jewry and establishing reading clinics for African American children - and we succeeded," says the native New Yorker. In her own sphere, Stoller is striving to keep the not-for-profit community theater on its feet. At first, in 1985, JEST was the only English-speaking theater in Jerusalem. Now there are five, says Stoller. Most of them do musicals, she says, which require a large cast of actors. "So it's harder for us to get actors," she explains. "We're not a business - we don't get paid." And the cost of renting a theater is rising all the time, she adds. "The Hirsch is a wonderful theater, but it's now about double the price to rent. However, we still keep the ticket prices low. We're not in it to make money; we just want to stay afloat." The Winslow Boy will be performed at the Hirsch Theater, Beit Shmuel, on February 19 at 8 p.m.; February 25 at 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m; February 26 at 8 p.m; and March 1 at 8 p.m. Info: 620-3455; 642-0908 (groups).