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Smile Upon Us, Lord

It’s not often that British audiences have the chance to see one of Russia’s greatest theatre companies on a UK stage, so a visit by the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre is not to be missed.

    All this month, the company will be performing Smile Upon Us, Lord, in a short season at the Barbican Theatre in London. The story is based on two novels by Lithuanian-born writer Grigory Kanovich. It features Efraim, an elderly stonecutter, who travels from his shtetl to Vilnius after he learns his son is awaiting trial for the attempted assassination of the governor-general there. He is accompanied by two friends, and faces a number of setbacks on his dangerous pilgrimage.

    It is a tale with which JC readers will feel a strong connection. With a cast of more than 40 people, the drama promises to be a visual treat, just like the company’s critically acclaimed sell-out performances of Eugene Onegin, which were seen here in 2015.

    Director Rimas Tuminas
    Director Rimas Tuminas

    Director Rimas Tuminas says he is looking forward to coming here for the production: “We are always glad to come to London, and this time we chose a Jewish/European play, Smile Upon Us, Lord. I believe that London theatregoers will empathise with the story we are going to reveal.

    “There are several storylines in the original novels by Grigory Kanovich. I’ve chosen the storyline of the parents. A quote from the play is ‘Wherever we traverse, wherever we go — we are for our children. And our children are traversing and going further and further away from us’. This is true: we all try to approach our children, become closer to them, give them our love and care while they are travelling all over the world, always ahead of us.”

    The play conveys a universal message, which Tuminas feels is particularly relevant today. “Now the world is dangerously balanced between war and peace. In the play, characters undertake a journey at a very unstable time. Their world is not just unbalanced, it’s horrifying, and the characters feel both its rising madness and approaching calamity. A natural human intention to develop something useful is replaced by a sudden urge to destroy.

    “There are different attitudes to the state of the world in the play. Some characters decide to leave everything behind and escape; others believe that they should stay and oppose the approaching disaster.

    “One of the heroes in the story says: ‘Our children are not taught to warm themselves by a fire. They get burnt instead.’ We need to learn how to warm ourselves by a gentle fire, how to share it, without getting burnt and making someone else suffer.

    “I believe forgiveness is the main theme of this story. An attempt to put oneself in someone's shoes, to understand and therefore to forgive is a universal idea. I hope it will attract Londoners, who live in a complicated multicultural city and need to work hard to understand each other.”

    Tuminas thinks that JC readers will enjoy the Jewish humour in the production. “Working with the original literature source, we discovered that Jewish nature is very theatrical, playful and vice-versa — theatrical aspects are very Jewish. Probably this is the reason why so many popular actors, artists, and singers come from the Jewish nation.”

    It has taken Tuminas a long time to realise his vision of bringing Kanovich’s work to the stage. “Actually the first idea was to shoot a movie. My colleague in Lithuania started dramatising the text, but the work wasn't finished for both political and financial reasons at that time [in the 1990s]. I returned from Norway and finished the work.”

    It was also difficult to mount the production. “We needed to connect the author's idea with the actor's action, the action with the text, the text with the sense of time and place.”

    Šmulé-Sender Lazarek - Aleksei Guskov
    Šmulé-Sender Lazarek - Aleksei Guskov

    He says that in Lithuania, the actors felt a strong connection to the Jewish element of the story, because historically there were close ties between the Lithuanian and Jewish communities. In central Russia, other actors found it more difficult to connect with the experience of the characters in the play.

    “One day I found a very simple explanation for them – I asked my Russian actors not to think that in this play the Lord is smiling only upon Jewish people. It is not 'us' and 'them'. The actors understood and they showed compassion to their heroes. The Lord's smile is for all of us, the characters, the actors, the audience…for everyone.”

    It is this message of love and compassion that the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia will be bringing to London at the end of February. Smile Upon Us, Lord is an extraordinary tale, performed by an extraordinary company.

    Smile Upon Us, Lord is suitable for those aged 14 and over. It will be performed in Russian, with English surtitles.

    28 February–3 March 2018

    The Barbican Theatre is at the Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS.

    Box office: 020 7638 8891. barbican.org.uk  


    Producer Oksana Nemchuk and Artsbridge company