Did you know that Fiddler on the Roof is based on the stories of “Jewish Mark Twain” writer Sholom Aleichem. After huge international success with his previous one-man shows, Saul Reichlin premieres his new show based on Aleichem’s work in October at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre. In our interview, Saul shares highlights from his remarkable journey so far – including how Aleichem inspired him after a life-threatening illness. Time to get booking!
Sholom Aleichem in the Old Country, adapted and performed by award-winning stage and screen actor Saul Reichlin, gets its UK premiere in a strictly limited, four-week season at London’s Lion & Unicorn Theatre from 30 October to 25 November 2018.
Saul Reichlin has won international acclaim for his previous one-man plays of Yiddish tales: Sholom Aleichem – Now You’re Talking!, Roots Shmoots and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s masterpiece Gimpel the Fool. Reichlin toured his first adaptation of Aleichem’s work, Now You’re Talking!, for more than five years, playing to full houses in 36 cities in eight countries. This included hit runs at the Edinburgh Fringe, London’s King’s Head Theatre and Off-Broadway.
Now, 15 years after he first brought Aleichem’s work to life, in the first stage adaptation of the writer’s stories since the 1964 premiere of the classic 1964 Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, Reichlin returns with this new stage show, abundant in all the wisdom and humour of the shtetl, told from the perspective of Sholom Aleichem himself.
Follow the hilarious adventures of Aleichem as he returns to the place of his birth, the small town of Kasrilevkeh, to revisit his roots. The abject poverty but perennial good cheer of villagers is portrayed in turn as hilarious, touching and occasionally horrifying in stories within stories, dreams within stories – where the matchmaker toils, men barter for eternal life, weigh up whisky against God, and tug at beards in a battle over a seat in the synagogue.
Relentless wives, a drunken shoemaker, a ‘leaking’ baby, missing money, the Dreyfus Case …Rothschild the rich, Rothschild the poor… the shtetl was home to them all. And, of course, such a trip would not be complete without special appearances from Fiddler’s Tevye the Milkman and Menachem Mendel, the matchmaker.
In Sholom Aleichem in the Old Country, directed by Victor Sobchak, Reichlin reminds the audience of the art of story-telling in its purest form as he narrates these timeless stories with a voice of Shakespearean proportions coupled with a vivacity designed to draw the audience deep into the heart of shtetl life.
Sholom Aleichem in the Old Country runs 30 October to 25 November 2018 at the Lion& Unicorn Theatre, 42-44 Gaisford St, London NW5 2ED. Performances (75 minutes) run Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30pm, with Sunday matinees at 6pm. Tickets are priced £14 (concessions £12). CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!
Talking to… Saul Reichlin
Half Russian himself, Saul Reichlin trained at Central School of Speech and Drama, after five years as a solicitor. At the National Theatre, he played Valentine in Love for Love, and narrated The Threepenny Opera. He was nominated for a Best Actor Award in 1998 for his performance as Josef Mashkan in Old Wicked Songs. His many other stage credits include Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Who’s the Daddy?, Sit and Shiver, Moby Dick, She Loves Me, The Madman and the Nun and The Royal Hunt of the Sun. His screen credits include Murder Maps, Miss Marple, Wall of Silence, Headhunters, The Knock, The River I Swam In and The Prisoner File.
Reichlin’s other one-man characterisations include Tony Hancock in the hugely successful Hancock’s Last Half Hour (national tour and Young Vic) and James McNeill Whistler in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (Edinburgh Festival and Chelsea Arts Club).
How did you first come across the work of Sholom Aleichem?
On the way to Cape Town to see my mum, I stopped in Johannesburg to visit some relatives, and browsing their bookshelves, I spotted a book of short stories by Sholom Aleichem. ‘Ooh, can I borrow this,’ I said, waving the little book. ‘You can have it,’ my cousin Ekkie said. ‘Your mother gave it to us years ago’. And indeed, inscribed inside, she had commended the ‘marvellous stories’ to them. And so, after all the years, my mother placed in my hands the work of Sholom Aleichem, which she loved so much, and which were to change my life.
I worked on the stories, adapting them to my needs, i.e. for a one-man stage performance. So my first venture into the work of this great writer started, with Sholom Aleichem, Now You’re Talking! The show has now played to 35 cities in eight countries, including seven weeks in London (New End Theatre and King’s Head) and nine weeks Off-Broadway (Daryl Roth Theater, Union Square) and eight weeks at the Chicago Jewish Theater. Since performing this wonderful material, my working life has taken on a meaning and purpose it never had before. Giving people an evening in the theatre they have said made them so happy is very rewarding, and validates an otherwise very commercially-driven life.
How would you describe Aleichem to those not familiar with his work?
On my opening night in London, in 2003, an Indian lady and a Chinese lady, who were both lecturers at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London told me that Sholom Aleichem was hugely popular in India and China, being seen as a ‘writer of the masses’. I realised that, in writing so specifically, about the trials and tribulations of the Jewish people in a small ghetto town in Russia, he had made the stories universal. And so Fiddler On The Roof, which derives from his stories, became one of the most popular musicals of the 20th century.
I have, in fact, been booked for performances for Judeo/Christian charities repeatedly, here and in America, and to wonderful reception. I am most gratified to find that non-Jewish audiences have taken to Sholom Aleichem’s gentle humour, sometimes funny, sometimes a bit sad, but always warm and human. They are an important part of my audiences, for not only the Jewish audiences, who adore him, but everyone seems to share in the legendary Jewish humour.
Do you have a favourite of his characters?
My audience favourites (Tevye and Menachem Mendel) have become my favourites. It’s hard not to enjoy telling stories to people who laugh out loud and give rousing applause! But there are so many special moments in other stories that it’s hard to single them out. This is particularly true of the new show, Sholom Aleichem in the Old Country, where the great man is himself the ‘straight man’ and the characters he meets on his return to Kasrilevke (the Anatevka of Fiddler), provide the humour.
What other highlights do you recall from previous incarnations?
One night, in Hampstead, when people were actually queueing in the street to get in, my stage manager came to me in the dressing room to tell me that we were sold out, but a man had driven all the way from Manchester, and couldn’t face driving all the way back without seeing the show. ‘But where are we going to put him?’ I asked. ‘Well’, he said, ‘we could put him on the stage’. ‘Ok’, I said, ‘put him on the stage!’ We did, and he smiled all the way through, and the audience loved it.
Of course, there are lots of special moments and times along the way, such as meeting Jackie Mason over lunch at the Russian Cafe in the Edison Hotel on 47th Street, New York. What a thrill. He was tucking into a huge plate of bacon, and when I said ‘Is this a good meal for a Jewish boy? An ex Rabbi?’ he shrugged and said ‘Atkins diet’, in a way that only he could. I burst out laughing, and we met regularly after that.
Why did you want to return to Aleichem onstage now?
It was always a mystery to me that ever since Fiddler burst upon the scene in New York, 36 years earlier, no one in the world except me had devoted a full evening’s theatre to Sholom Aleichem, and again no one, since my show in 2003, had done it, I thought ‘Ok, I’ll do it again!’ I read through translations of his stories but couldn’t get the feel for it. But when I read his book, Inside Kasrilevke, I knew this was the one. The book was neatly divided up into different adventures, with lots of typical Sholom Aleichem characters, the dialogue was gorgeous, and the mix of funny and poignant just perfect.
My first go at it became Roots… Shmoots! And I toured Johannesburg and Cape Town with a double bill of that and Gimpel the Fool, the Isaac Bashevis Singer masterpiece, at the invitation of Pieter Toerien.
Then fate took a hand in proceedings now, and I suddenly found myself hit by what turned out to be auto-immune disease. All strength and energy were gone, I was unable to walk more than 10 meters, with a variety of symptoms, some of which the doctors at the Whittington Hospital had never seen before, and which would last about a year and a half, including a lost voice. Now, mercifully, still taking the tablets, as they say, I am pretty much back in business. The possibly fatal scare left me much more aware of precious time passing than I had been, and so I decided to put Sholom Aleichem on again, and make a bit of a splash if I can. My director, Victor Sobchak and I have been working to make the event something special for both of us.
What’s different about what you’re doing now?
This is actually the UK premiere of the new material, but there will be elements of the first show which I am bringing back ’by public demand’. About three-quarters of the show will be entirely new to Londoners. I don’t think people will ever tire of the timeless brilliance and humour of Sholom Aleichem.
For fans of Fiddler on the Roof and who may be planning to see Trevor Nunn’s revival at Menier Chocolate Factory later this year, why should they see your show?
None of my material is from or belongs to Fiddler on the Roof. It is totally different from that matchless wonder, and I even had a New York critic compare my show favourably with the production of Fiddler that was on there at the same time. My show is in no sense the poor relation, as we share the same priceless writing quality, originality, humour and humanity.
Although my show actually works perfectly seen either before or after Fiddler, maybe see mine first, because otherwise, you may still have the wondrous Fiddler music ringing in your ears and think something is missing. It actually isn’t, as I do have music, but I am not dependent on it, as some Fiddler productions have been in the past. Of all Sholom Aleichem’s writing, this piece is unique as it chronicles his own personal experiences as he is dipped into the deep end of the pool of characters he meets.
Anything else you’d like to add?
With all that’s going on in the world today, it is more moving than ever to find that in spite of hideous victimisation and slaughter down the centuries, this did not result in hatred and the need for revenge, but even for humour to survive.
Sholom Aleichem in the Old Country runs 30 October to 25 November 2018 at the Lion& Unicorn Theatre, 42-44 Gaisford St, London NW5 2ED. Performances (75 minutes) run Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8pm, with Sunday matinees at 1pm and 5pm. Tickets are priced £14 (concessions £12). CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!