Ireland waits no longer for Yiddish Godot

By Simon Round, July 31, 2014
David Mandelbaum (right) and Shane Baker in the play

David Mandelbaum (right) and Shane Baker in the play

Irish theatre-goers attending a festival celebrating the life and work of Samuel Beckett, one of its greatest playwrights of the 20th century, would expect to see a production of his most famous work, Waiting for Godot. What they might not anticipate is a version of the play being performed in Yiddish.

Those attending the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival will have that opportunity as New York's New Yiddish Rep company will be performing Vartn af Godot with English subtitles.

Its director feels that the play and the language are a perfect fit. Romanian-born Moshe Yassur, whose own mother tongue is Yiddish, explains that Beckett - who fought in the French Resistance - was haunted by the chaos of life during and after the Second World War. His experiences inspired him to write his masterpiece about two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who are waiting for a man who never arrives.

"No one expresses the desolation of the Second World War like Beckett did," Yassur says.

"Beckett wrote this play in 1947 and 1948, so with his sensibility it is impossible to believe that he was not moved by what was happening in the world. In an original script Beckett has written the name of Estragon as Levi.

We know that Beckett had a Jewish friend in the French Resistance

"We know that Beckett had a Jewish friend in the French Resistance. He survived the war, was liberated from Mauthausen but died from malnutrition on the way to Switzerland. This influenced Beckett very much. He saw the displacement of the people who had no home, in the camps and in the fields. It's very difficult to think of him not being influenced by that."

Yassur believes that the new Yiddish translation, which so impressed New York critics last autumn, adds something to the experience - even for those who do not speak the language. "People who had seen the play many times before said the Yiddish language performance gave them an extra dimension. They were laughing and crying at the same time. People came to me after the show and said they understood the play now in a way they didn't before."

Yassur adds with a chuckle that there is another type of resonance in the play for Jews. "We don't know who Godot is but we are waiting as the Jewish people have been waiting for 2,000 years for someone or something which is maybe coming and maybe not. We are experts in waiting."

The New Yiddish Rep's artistic director David Mandelbaum both produces the play and takes the part of Estragon. He says, laughing, that the dual responsibility is "terrible", explaining that he would much rather just act but that in a small company everyone has multiple roles to perform.

Established in the summer of 2007, it endeavours to show that Yiddish is a vibrant language that can express modern thought. "It was a response to a need to expand the horizons of Yiddish theatre here and to try to do some serious theatre as well as the prevalent musical and nostalgic theatre," Mandelbaum adds.

He thought Waiting for Godot would be a perfect play to translate into Yiddish. "Someone obviously had that idea before me because there was already a translation published in Israel in 1980. But as far as we know this is the first time anyone has attempted a production. And this translation by Shane Baker [who plays the part of Vladimir] is a masterpiece."

Mandelbaum also emphasises that performing in Yiddish makes it clear that this is a play which reflects a holocaust, though not necessarily the Nazi one.

"The fact it is in Yiddish makes it pretty obvious what this play is about. It could be Rwanda, it could be Sarajevo, it could be the Deep South. It speaks to everyone."

He adds that he and his company have been made to feel very welcome in Northern Ireland.

"The fact we are doing it in Steele Hall, a place where Beckett himself spent many hours, makes this more significant. He gave us the gift of a masterwork and I will try to do it credit."

The Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival runs until August 10.

Last updated: 6:13pm, August 4 2014