Rogues & Vagabonds

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Archive Review • THE DEAD FIDDLER • Sacred and Profane @ New End Theatre • 2006

Collected Stories (Penguin Modern Classics)9k=

This is a play about dybbuks, in Jewish folklore the spirits of dead sinners unable to pass on to their next life who inhabit the bodies of living people into the next world. It is based on a tale by Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904 – 1991), the Polish writer, in Yiddish and in English who emigrated to America in 1935 and is best known for his stories of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the First World War.

Yentl is a young girl who is left desolate when her betrothed dies just before their marriage. In her weakened state her body is invaded first by the dybbuk of a gypsy fiddler and then by that of a barmaid who became a prostitute.

Director and adapter David Zoob has assembled a cast of actor-musicians to enable him to retell the tale in a performance that interweaves music and theatre. This is not a musical but a play enriched by music. However, its setting in a Jewish shtetl, its Klezmer folk music, dancing villagers, a canopied wedding, a violinist seated on a rooftop and even a character called Tevye cannot help but remind us of the Sholom Aleichem musical Fiddler on the Roof, set in a similar, but Russian, village.

In its mix of characters and moments of festivity it conjures up the same feeling of a vibrant community, but we get little chance to discover much about individuals. The adaptation relies heavily upon narration, divided between the characters but delivered directly to the audience. There is little interaction between the living characters and the action is structured around the struggle between the dybbuks and those who seek to drive them out.

Zoob cleverly presents us with Yentl and the dybbuks that possess her at the same time, sometimes only as voices, sometimes physically present, actor and actress, sometimes girl and dybbuk simultaneously delivering lines, sometimes divided between. It is a device that is very effective.

The gypsy is the strongest role in the play and Ezra Hjalmarsson’s un-British voice gives him an exoticism that marks him out from the villagers but sometimes blurs understanding. This domineering clever rogue is a marvellous role for an actor but Hjalmarsson seems to be holding back and never quite engages with the audience.

Heather Snaith, though perhaps not so physically skilled, is much less restrained as the female dybbuk.

The success of the concept, and indeed of the play, lies in the splendid performance of Lydia Baksh as the possessed Yentl. She manages a stylization that seems perfectly natural; she even manages to pull off a sudden, slightly jokey doubling as ghastly boy lined up as a second choice husband. I want to see more of her.

As her parents, Joanna Foster and Saul Eisenberg have little opportunity to develop their characters or relate to their daughter – among his doubles, Eisenberg has a much more rewarding role as the village beggar, especially in a scene when the male dybbuk lays bare almost every villager’s faults and peccadilloes.

The production does show us these three as a real family, but that is largely because the adaptation tells us things rather than showing them. One needs more human interaction, as in one short scene when two gentiles come to gawp at and doubt the apparent possession, an opportunity that Frank Lazarus and especially Nicholas Karimi clearly relish.

Wai Yin Kwok has kept the setting simple: the village suggested by a wall of shapes suggesting wooden houses with glass panels to allow us to see occasional action behind them and leave the maximum playing space which is sorely needed. Costumes are neat and simple. They are perhaps closer to Chagall’s memory images than the real life photographs of villagers in the programme.

I believe the director’s intention was to try to catch the change that was coming to Easter European Jewish life at this time. I don’t think he succeeds but one great merit of this production is that there is absolutely nothing sentimental about it. It is strong on humour and, despite a plethora of Yiddish expressions and Hebrew words, there is no need to be Jewish to enjoy it.

Howard Loxton © 2006

Did you Know…?
Did you know that this play was adapted from the same Singer story, Yentl and the Yeshiva Boy, that was the inspiration for Barbra Streisand’s film, Yentl (1983)? It was first adapted for the stage by Leah Napolin for the Chelsea Theater in Brooklyn in 1974.

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Originally published on R&V on 01-05-06

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