Three Jews travel by horse and cart from their village to Vilnius. This is the simple premise of Smile Upon Us, Lord, the latest production by Russia’s Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre, which arrives at London’s Barbican Theatre on February 28.
Based on writings by Lithuanian Jewish novelist Grigory Kanovich, it’s not an obvious choice for the Vakhtangov, one of Russia’s grandest playhouses. Onegin and Chekhov are more their style.
Subsidised to the hilt by the state — as are nearly all Russian theatres —the Vakhtangov today has six stages. Founded in 1921, the institution has been a constant during the great eras of tumult, change and tyranny that have swept Russia ever since. The building is a palatial colonnaded edifice on Moscow’s pedestrianised Arbat Street, aka the Arbat, the main drag through one of Moscow’s oldest districts.
When I and three other British journalists, Viv, Nick and Andrzej, visited the theatre last month, the Arbat had a festive feel. Stalls sold food and souvenirs celebrating the coming Russian Christmas. The story of three Jewish men travelling from their shtetl to Vilnius because the son of one of them attempted to assassinate the city’s governor was not exactly seasonal programming. Yet still the public came to this three-hour epic and most Jewish of shows.
This dramatised version of Kanovich’s tale — taken from the novelist’s pairing A Goatling and Two Pennies and Please Smile Upon Us, Lord — is rooted in the culture into which he was born, before it was exterminated by the Holocaust. The 88-year-old — whose autobiographical Shtetl Love Song is reviewed in today’s JC — lives in Israel these days.
His work is a eulogy of sorts. “My major motive was my desire to create a monument to honour my long-suffering people and to strengthen the national consciousness of Russian-speaking Jews in all of the Soviet Union,” Kanovich told me by email after I returned from Moscow. Certainly, the play’s director Rimas Tuminas has imbued his production with a Jewish sensibility.
The main protagonist is Efraim, a stonecutter, played by the watchful and infinitely charismatic Sergey Makovetsky. He is accompanied on the trip by destitute former shtetl shopkeeper Shmulé and tragic clown figure, Avner. If Beckett’s Waiting for Godot were a Jewish road movie (Tuminas initially envisaged adapting Kanovich’s novels for cinema) this is what it would look like. It’s a deeply philosophical evening lightened with absurdist and Jewish humour. The opening sequence features the unforgettable sight of the village goat suspended high in the air while leaning against the wall of a house.
In a case of counterintuitive casting, the dumb animal is played by one of Vakhtangov Theatre’s grand dames, Yulia Rutberg. When we met the 40-strong cast after the performance we were told the play should not only be seen as Jewish, but as universal, which is one of those well-meaning things that people sometimes say. But none of us were convinced. A play like Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In the Sun is African American, not universal. And Smile Upon Us, Lord is Jewish.
I ask if there are any Jews in the cast. Rutberg raises her arm like a child in class. Later, she comes up to me and whispers, “my animal, my goat. It is pure Chagall.” And she’s right.
From my London born-and-bred perspective, Smile Upon Us, Lord has that element that is more conspicuous in Jewish stories set in central and especially eastern Europe than those set in the West. Because in this play, and any literary work featuring Jews in equivalent territories, from the Polish Holocaust play Our Class to Fiddler on the Roof, Jews are sometimes casually, often accusingly but always immediately identified by gentiles as Jews.
Garb can give the game away and a chap like Tevye would look Jewish in the Shetlands let alone the shtetl. But as a Jew who in France has been mistaken for a Frenchman, and in Malta for a Maltese, in Greece for a Greek and in England for everything except English, it has always struck me how immediate and unerringly Jews are identified as such in the less cosmopolitan east. On stage, anyway. So it is in Smile Upon Us Lord. Despite there being no outward sign of the trio’s race or religion, it happens to them on the road to Vilnius.
And then it happened to me, on the Arbat, after we left the theatre brimful of the play’s tragi-comic, doleful wisdom, still processing its final symbolic image, which hovers over the stage as a warning of not only what might await Efraim and friends in Vilnius, but all Jews as they travel into the 20th century. So we were looking for a bar. As we walked down the thoroughfare, a man swayed up to us. He, too, was brimful, possibly of vodka, and warmly greeted each of us in English, probably because he had overheard us talking.
“Challo, challo, challo,” he said and then to me, without missing a beat, “l’chaim.” He wanted to personally welcome each of us to the coming World Cup finals, for which we thanked him and then he went on his way.
I looked at my colleagues and they at me. To my eye, none of them had hitherto looked particularly un-Jewish. Viv, the only Russian speaker in our group, has Jewish ancestry. “Wow,” she said.
The following day ended up as absurd as anything we had seen on the Vakhtangov’s stage. It was our final evening and in a Ukrainian restaurant the waiter, completely unprompted, asked me if I’d like to try their Israeli wine. We later joined a Russian friend of Viv’s at a retro night club where, with apparently no irony whatsoever, they played the worst Russian and Western pop music ever released, including an electronica version of Hava Nagila.
It is a powerful thing when the discretion with which British Jews have trained themselves to carry their Jewishness is revealed to be about as effective as covering a kippah in cling film. But this was Christmas Night in Russia, the vodka and wine was flowing and, as Hava Nagila cast its spell, I was nudged on to the dance floor.
With my discretion abandoned, I ended up leading the entire throng in a pretty convincing display of the hora. ‘I can’t believe I did that,’ I said to Nick. “Don’t worry” he said. “It’s universal.”
Back in London, I talk to Tuminas through a translator on Skype. He is not only the director of the show, but the artistic director of Vakhtangov. Like Kanovich he, too, is Lithuanian. His father, a teacher, taught in villages all over the country. Now 66, he has cherished memories of the remnants of Lithuania’s Jewish community after the war.
“In the villages where I lived, we used to wait with much impatience for the arrival of Jewish merchants. They used to come to our village to sell everything — sweets, clothing. When they came it was a holiday, something very special. We never felt any difference in the nationalities but, at the same, the Jews had traits of character which the Lithuanian people don’t have, being creative, witty, very clever. So they somehow coloured our life with these talents.”
The traders travelled by horse and cart, an image Tuminas re-invents for his production. Loaded with the content of their lives, the carts were like individual “Noah’s arks,” Tuminas says. “I have never declared this but I have to say that I have always felt a kind of penitence in the company of Jewish people,” he adds. “I feel profoundly an aching loss that can never be replaced. I’m Lithuanian and I do not have any Jewish origins. But that doesn’t prevent me from feeling these things acutely.
“And these feelings are not on the surface of this production, rather they hide somewhere inside.”
‘Smile Upon Us, Lord’ is at the Barbican Theatre February 28 to March 3