David Schneider's ebullient, clued-up celebration of the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre and its resilience in the face of Stalinist oppression is manifestly a labour of love – as comes across with captivating force in this powerfully acted, if (in design terms) makeshift-looking, premiere by Matthew Lloyd.
“Russia is one of the least antisemitic countries in the world. Here everyone gets rounded up and killed,” is the mordant quip of the actor (a fabled Yiddish Lear) and the company's artistic director Solomon Mikhoels, whose brazen contradictions – an inspiring largeness of soul and an outrageous, callously womanising egotism – are caught in a terrific, meaty portrait of flawed greatness by Darrell D'Silva.
But while as Chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee Mikhoels was useful to Stalin during the War to campaign internationally for support against Hitler, afterwards Soviet antisemitism could be less coy, though the NKVD thought it politic to disguise Mikhoels' murder in 1948 as a car accident.
Schneider has a fascinating story to tell and though his chronicle is sometimes a bit bumpy as it clatters from the mid-1920s to 1952, it gives you both a vivid impression of the minefield of the theatre world under Stalin with its committees and informers (themselves often under hideous pressure) and the constant fear of being thought “counter-revolutionary” in style or repertoire and a funny, attractively non-po-faced sense of raffish, unregenerate fallibility amongst the thesps.
The freedom to be petty is a precious one.
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