The laments of a milkman in rural, pre-revolutionary Russia, cursing the outrageous burden of five daughters may not scream ‘relevant content’ in 2018. However, the pressures of restrictive tradition, the powerlessness of poverty, the forced displacement of entire communities – the latter rightly declared by director Glen Young as “undeniably relevant” – may be found in OXOPS’ thoughtful and timely production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’.
Even if the concept ‘am-dram’ induces dread and an involuntary shudder, this production is worth your time. Integral to this musical is the community, and a society such as OXOPS excels in presenting this in a way that few student productions would manage. The sight of grandmothers swaying to Jerry Bock’s score behind the beams of eager stage-school tweens conveys the warmth, and the claustrophobia, of Tevye’s Anatevka. Tevye’s obsession with reputation before a sizeable community is highly believable from the opening number, the stage being crammed with enough people to populate several villages as they enthusiastically bellow ‘tradition’ as the central tenet of Anatevka life. The other advantage of such an enormous cast is the eagerness of the audience it brings; their regular applause and clear admiration energises the cast as the play develops.
Most impressive, however, are the intimate, all-female scenes. The stand-out performance of the show undoubtedly comes from Jo Lainchbury as Golde, Tevye’s wife, whose unsentimental approach to the role works well in steering the presentation of the village clear from a twee provincial Utopia. The rendition of ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’ is surprisingly and satisfyingly gritty, in spite of the title’s suggestion of a nauseatingly saccharine number. An emphasis on the daughters’ desperation, and their fear of a life of marital drudgery – “I could get stuck for good” – complemented Tevye’s (Steve Mellin) own powerlessness. Sardonically referred to by Golde as the “breadwinner”, Tevye is trapped in an economic situation so dire that he contemplates marrying nineteen year-old Tzeitzel (Saffi Needham) to the ageing widower Lazar Wolf. The latter is played with impressive subtlety by Dennis Garrett, who conveys the suffering even of this character, comfortably well-off, but desperately lonely in old age.
An element that works less well is the inclusion of the eponymous, wordless fiddler, who seems perpetually onstage. Tevye’s conversations with the pirouetting, oddly violin-less fiddler draped in a coat that was less the work of Motel’s needle, more a quick visit to the M&S January sale, adds little to Mellin’s depiction of a frustrated yet loving father. The proximity of the fiddler presented Tevye as slightly too self-absorbed in the wrong moments, particularly in the final scenes as he watches his community separate. In a moment when Tevye should be realising that his daughters’ choice of husbands, once so challenging to Tevye’s precious traditions, now prove to be their escape routes, our attention is drawn to the fiddler, whose incongruously cheerful presence is a distraction.
However, as the curtain falls, this gripe is quickly forgotten, as an emotion uncommon in musicals emerges: a sense of bereavement. Tevye’s Anatevka, for all its internal flaws and conservatism, is driven apart by external intolerance. Young’s production conveys this in a highly moving manner. Tevye’s paranoia in attempting to uphold the traditions of a community is rendered futile when that very community ceases to exist. Commanding the respect of Anatevka’s inhabitants and upholding his faith is the source of Tevye’s dignity and influence. To then see him bereft of his daughters, home and community is a haunting sight. It is also an invitation to reflect upon the more intangible losses that an individual incurs when driven from home: support networks, a quiet pride in one’s public stature, security – all must be sacrificed in exchange for survival.
Perhaps the most chilling lines in the production are delivered by Jeremy Lane’s Constable; he describes the devastating pogrom as an “unofficial demonstration”. This is the opaque linguistic manipulation – the masking of hatred and intolerance in bland, clinical discourse – that demagogues continue to deploy in their deception of the public. The cast do such lines full justice; similarly knowingly delivered by Mellin is Tevye’s lyric: “when you’re rich, they think you’ll really know”. Leaving the theatre after this impressive production, one has the depressing realisation that such evils – cultural and religious hatred and its masking in sickening, sound-bite phrases, economic injustice, acceptance of the idea that influence can be bought – remain all too pertinent.
‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is at the Oxford Playhouse until 20th January.