Menier Chocolate Factory, London – until 9 March 2019
We are there, over a century ago, beyond the Caucasus. Designer Robert Jones has wrapped us around in rustic planks and ramshackle cottages, with a village pump and a woodland beyond showing skies of, as the wedding song goes: “Sunrise, sunset…” Tevye’s dairy cart, the buckets and brooms wielded by his five daughters and weary wife all speak of establishment, domesticity, a homespun and sometimes hungry community in little Anatevka. It breathes old Jewish faith, irony, gossip, feuds, family. But their world is changing, and before the end the Constable – himself under orders, reluctant, fed up – will have given every one of them three days to sell up and clear out. Hunched, laden shapes will fade into the dusk.
My companion of last night had a father who, at the age of 16, fled from just such a shtetl in rural Russia, arriving penniless and wandering to make at last a life here. Even without that connection, in that intimate space, Trevor Nunn’s marvellous production would have struck deep into the heart. For all the characterful jokes and romantic sweetness, when Stein, Bock and Harnick’s classic musical is well done it always takes on the air of a ritual commemoration. So it should. As Tevye says, they are all, like the fiddler on the roof, “trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking our necks”. Like the Highland Clearances, like any refugee tide in the world, it is one of the saddest stories.
And the beauty of the show (especially here, so close to the clattering buckets, whirling dances and exasperated family moments) is how fast, completely and lovingly, the viewer is drawn into a community which for all its feuds, flaws and absurdities did nothing to deserve it. Sober, kindly, ancient, generous, knowing that even for the poor it is “a blessing to give”, they draw us to them. Good people in a terribly changing time. Where, as our hero remarks “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, makes the whole world blind and toothless”.
Andy Nyman’s stocky, practical Tevye is a joy from the start: grumbling to his God with headshaking informality, proud of his mastery as Papa and wedded to tradition, unable to repress a certain inner joyfulness even in his attempts at sternness. He kids himself that he is master of his five daughters and who they marry, yet always proves too soft a soul not to talk himself out attempts at correctness. The daughters are perfect: Molly Osborne’s serious Tzeitel determined to avoid the matchmaker’s elderly choice and stick with shy Motl the tailor, Harriet Bunton’s Hodel who bravely risks dancing with the revolutionary student Perchik at the wedding; later a more serious dereliction of Jewish duty as their younger sister marries out. All five are perfect, catching precisely the combination of irrepressible youth and sober-frocked traditional demeanour as around them the men drink and laugh and quarrel, and Judy Kuhn’s equally perfect Mama Golde rolls her eyes impatiently and holds family and community together.
Close up the show’s great set-pieces are intoxicating: wildest of Cossack dancing from the Russians interleaved with Jewish traditional moves, every brief fracas timed to perfection, every gloriously Jewish switch of mood from sentiment to sarcasm timed to a hair. You gasp and laugh and shiver in recognition and , yes, love. However many times you have seen it this tight, intimate, heartfelt production sparks new life. Mazel Tov!
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