Menier Chocolate Factory, London – until 27 November 2021
Here is life, history, theatrical passion, great migrations and lyrical romance in the rain. Here’s anger and humour and love and despair, jokes and vigour and a slap in the eye to prudery and prejudice, and many messages from the 20th century to the 21st.
Rather than return cautiously with a safe old feelgood favourite the Menier’s artistic director David Babani has taken – deep breath – a new American-Jewish Broadway play about a 1923 scandal about a lesbian play in Yiddish from 1907, and its 1940s aftermath in a doomed attic in the Lodz ghetto. Could have been a tough sell, though the playwright Paula Vogel was a 1998 Pulitzer winner and with director-collaborator Rebecca Taichman it won a Tony just before the pandemic.
You can see why, and why it will hit the Oliviers lists. It’s a delight, seething with life and feeling. A silent line of eight unsmiling, muffled, mittel-European figures sits still as statues as we enter then rises, stretches, ash around them dispersing as the fiddler strikes up and modest old Lemmi (Finbar Lynch) apologetically explains that he is just a stage manager, but has a story to tell, which the actors will help him to do.
They are dancing by now, accordion and clarinet amplifying the plaintive klezmer fiddle, and the tale begins. It tells how a play in Yiddish, God of Vengeance (Got fun Nekome) ran from St Petersburg to Berlin to Constantinople to New York, and back to Poland in the Holocaust when its author, Sholem Asch, forbade its performance forever. Or until Vogel, a student tentatively finding her gay identity in 1974, found it in a university library and was enthralled.
Across the decades it spoke to her understanding of love: a lyrical, passionate, transgressive tale from the shtetl, of a brothel-keeper’s virginal daughter falling in love with one of his whores and driving the father to blasphemous rage which makes him hurl at her the precious velvet scroll of the Torah which his employee girls earned for him “on their backs and their knees”.
Fast-moving, time and place signalled by captions on the back of the gilded proscenium, the cast show us young Asch’s anxious presentation of his first play to sceptical elders (middle-aged bearded chaps reading as lovesick girls are wickedly funny).
The visionaries understand that “We need plays in Yiddish to represent our people, speak of our sins. Why must Jews always be heroes?” Others fear – presciently – that its frankness will fuel antisemitism. But as Asch says, “Ten Jews in a circle accusing each other of antisemitism” is pretty normal. And it is 1907: Berlin will surely love its brave sexual fluidity? “All Germans can talk about is Dr Freud!” The cast briefly become a Berlin cabaret, complete with Peter Polycarpou and his beard in exhilarating feather-capped drag.
It runs all across Europe, the dramatic final scene gloriously reproduced from every angle as a scuttling cast represent the tour of European capitals, the young women (Alexandra Silber and Molly Osborne) flinging themselves into the sometimes comic, sometimes beautiful love scenes. Then it’s 1920 and Staten Island, as dear Lemmi (by this time we are in love with the humble faithful tailor-turned stagehand and his humane wisdom) follows Asch through the gateway to freedom. In Provincetown and Greenwich Village the play, in Yiddish, finds so much approval in the community that a translation is made for a Broadway opening. One original actress cannot master good enough English, and producers see they can’t have her sounding like “a girl off the boat”. It’s the jazz age. Immigrants must Americanize…
New York, though, is more shockable than old Europe. The American replacement actress is thrilled at shocking her parents with the lesbianism, while Lemmi murmurs in the wings that all love is love – “When Messiah comes, I think, no hate..”. Trouble brews: “Jews, Polacks, take your filth back to your own country..”. In a famous raid the vice squad swoops on the first night, Officer Baillie hopelessly getting in the way in the wings. The arrested cast suffer a famous judgement demanding Americans are served only “upright and wholesome” plays. In one of the many ironies of the story deftly, skimmingly thrown out in this fabulous telling, it is a sermon by Rabbi Silverman that fuels the protest.
Lemmi goes back to Europe, and at last finds himself in the ghetto in Lodz, sharing the last fragments of bread as a group defiantly put on a scene of the play, their heritage. We know what a sharp chord from the instruments means: another raid, another terrible line echoing the Staten Island queue of twenty years earlier. The two girls, though only in a dream, dance and embrace, white and insubstantial and free as real rain falls.
box office menierchocolatefactory.com to 27 November