Francine Wolfisz speaks to film director Gary Sinyor about his debut comedic play NotMoses, which explores the treatment of a regular slave in Egypt
From a baby who cries so much he’s thrown back into the river, to characters making kebabs on the burning bush and plagues dismissed as natural disasters, a new West End play promises to be anything but the traditional retelling of the exodus from Egypt.
Displaying his usual tongue-in-cheek humour, NotMoses is the debut play from director Gary Sinyor, more commonly known for his work on the big screen, rather than on stage.
But the 53-year-old, who sat in the director’s chair for Leon The Pig Farmer, The Bachelor and United We Fall is revelling in his latest project, which he has written and directs.
“Creatively, I’ve had the best week of my life,” enthuses the Finchley father-of-four, when we meet during a break in rehearsals at the Arts Theatre, where NotMoses opens next Thursday.
The premise of the story, played by a cast of nine, is simple: NotMoses (Greg Barnett) is the crying baby plucked from his basket by a princess, only to be dumped back into the Nile when she sees a nicer infant floating upstream. While the story of Moses (played by Thomas Nelstrop), who grew up an Egyptian prince to later become the leader of the children of Israel is well-documented in the Old Testament, Sinyor tells me he was intrigued by the unknown story of the regular slave, in this case, NotMoses.
Sinyor, a member of New North London Synagogue, tells me he wanted to bring “traditional modern Jewish angst into an ancient setting” and imagines NotMoses as having “a mother keen to see him married and a dad he doesn’t get on with”.
He adds: “I’ve always been interested in outsiders. The Bible doesn’t deal with people like NotMoses and what was going on with the slaves while Moses was living in the palace. You have no idea of their lives other than the fact they ‘cried out to God’.
“Through NotMoses, I’ve been able to explore that, as well as the other side of the story. He is a cynic, he doesn’t believe in God and says the Jews should just leave, not wait for the redeemer. Even when the miracle of the 10 plagues takes place, he is the one explaining away how it happened.”
With its visual gags, one-liners and obvious influence from Sinyor’s self-professed favourites, Monty Python and Woody Allen, NotMoses is a play intended “to get people laughing, but also to get them thinking”.
“That’s the ideal for me,” he continues. “I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think there are interesting points the play raises, both within the Jewish world and the non-Jewish world, by undercutting some of the tenets upon which Christianity and Islam rests. I am deliberately doing that and not just saying let’s have fun with the Moses story.”
That said, Sinyor, who graduated from the National Film and Television School with his Bafta-nominated The Unkindest Cut, is well aware a light-hearted take on a Bible story could prove controversial. When Monty Python’s Life Of Brian opened in 1979, the satire was accused of blasphemy and 39 local authorities in the UK either banned it or imposed an X certificate, to limit its audience. Ireland and Norway banned it for years, but the film still went on to become a box office success.
So is Sinyor concerned NotMoses may cause offence?
“Causing offence goes with the territory,” he responds. “When an Orthodox, Masorti or Liberal rabbi writes something, he causes offence to someone in the community, because we are such a fractured community. ]
“When I made Leon The Pig Farmer, people were offended by it. We are very specific about the kind of Judaism we like to practice and everyone has their own little rules, so people find it very easy to be offended.
“People can also be offended by serious takes on a Bible story – they were offended by Exodus: Gods and Kings. I was offended by it, to be honest. And Noah [directed in 2014 by Darren Aronofsky] was terrible. In my mind, these were badly done and worthy of ridicule.
“I don’t know if people will be offended [by NotMoses]. Were people offended by Stephen Fry or Richard Dawkins?
“If the [then] Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, can sit down and have a discussion with Dawkins, the world’s foremost atheist – and people can watch that without being offended – then I don’t see why I’m doing anything more offensive than that.”
Away from the potential controversy, Sinyor has been enjoying the “extraordinary transition” of rehearsing over three weeks with his small team of actors, as opposed to the “really pressurised, 10 minutes of rehearsal with a crew of 100” that he normally encounters on a film set.
But equally, he won’t be spending too much time away from the big screen.
He has another two films in the pipeline, a thriller called The Unseen and a wedding comedy, Something Blue.
• NotMoses runs at the Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street, London, from 10 March to 14 May. Details: www.notmosesonstage.com or 020 7836 8463