Out of tune fiddling on the roof

This state school production of a Jewish musical classic was warped and irresponsible

By Geoffrey Alderman, December 30, 2008

Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, the location of the bizarre end-of-term production of Fiddler on the Roof reported in the JC of December 19, is a prestigious, much-sought-after state school. As its website proudly proclaims, it was the first sixth-form college in the country to be awarded Ofsted’s “designated outstanding” status, by virtue of being assessed as outstanding in all inspection categories.

“If you choose to come to Hills Road,” its prospectus trumpets, “we will do everything we can to help you achieve the self-confidence… which will serve you in the years to come.” What is more (the prospectus boasts), the college has “Beacon” status which apparently “recognises and celebrates” its “high quality innovative approach to teaching and learning.”

I smiled as I read this because, as an educator myself, I am — alas — only too well aware that an approach which is “innovative” might not necessarily be sensible. It may in fact be downright stupid. Hills Road’s production of Fiddler bears ample witness to the depressing truth of this maxim.

The musical is based on the short stories of Sholem Aleichem, the pen-name of the Russian- Jewish writer SN Rabinovich. In 1894, Aleichem introduced to the world his fictional character, Tevye, the dairyman who lives through times good and bad but always manages to take the optimistic view. The musical opened on Broadway in 1964. Set in Tsarist Russia in 1905, it charts Tevye’s attempts to marry off his adult daughters and ends with the expulsion of Tevye and his family, and all the other Jews, from the shtetl of Anatevka in which they and their forebears had lived for centuries.

Fiddler has been revived many times. But the head of drama at Hills Road, Richard Fredman, seems to have had an ulterior motive when he announced that he was to revive it yet again. What this motive was remained a mystery until the day before his production was due to open.

According to the parents of one student in the production, Mr Fredman did a full run-through of the whole show but it was only at that point that it became apparent he had determined — without prior discussion with the students — to end the performance with video images of Israeli tanks and air strikes and Israeli soldiers rounding up Arabs.

The effect — presumably fully intended — was to turn the Hills Road Fiddler from a musical depicting Jewish suffering in the Pale of Settlement into a piece of anti-Zionist and even (some might argue) anti-Jewish propaganda. And to have duped the audience (not to mention members of the cast) in the process.

The school has offered two defences of this scam. The first, expressed by Mr Fredman in a programme note, suggests that what was intended was merely to bring Fiddler “up to date” by “dedicating this production to all people forced from their homes by intolerance, ignorance and fear.”

I myself am always suspicious of attempts to bring theatrical works “up to date” — to portray Macbeth as a black man, for example, or, for that matter, Othello as white. But I recognise that, even though it offends my acute sense of historical accuracy, there is such a thing as artistic licence. Here we come to the second defence, that of “artistic freedom.”

Mr Fredman is entitled to his views and, had he been directing his idiosyncratic interpretation of Fiddler at, say, Stratford-upon-Avon, I would not be half as angry as I am. Because, of course, he was not operating as the director of an independent theatrical company but as a drama teacher in a state school. As such, he and his line-managers at Hills Road have obligations with which, for better or worse, independent theatrical companies are not burdened.

What are these obligations? Well, some of them are set out in unambiguous terms in the college’s “Equality and diversity statement,” wherein Hills Road declares its intention “to treat all staff and students with respect and dignity” and to provide an environment “free from discrimination, harassment or victimisation.”

This is not what happened when the college launched its production of Fiddler last month. The production was probably not illegal but it was certainly ill-judged. If the college governors want to draw a line under this matter (as I suspect they do), the best advice I can give them is to waste no time in issuing an unreserved apology.

    Last updated: 4:38pm, December 30 2008