I am grateful to my Bubbe, who arrived in London from the Pale of Settlement in 1890, cradling the first of her 10 children, my beloved grandma. And equally to the paternal grandfather I sadly never met, who made his painful way to Britain from Bobruisk, Belarus, despite his gammy leg. Thanks to them my family thrived here rather than perishing in a pit in the Holocaust. But did they leave voluntarily, or were they pushed out like the Jews of Anatevka?
Daniel Evans’ beautifully thought-through production made me ponder this question more than any previous incarnation of this much-loved musical, based on Shalom Aleichem’s equally-loved tales. Gloriously funny though it may be when appropriate, it provokes thought as well as sentimental tears, starting with the eloquent opening, which actually has these Jews arriving to set up home in Anatevka from wherever else they have fled or been ejected.
Each carries some form of luggage – a metaphor for emotional baggage, somehow simultaneously obvious and subtle. For much of the evening designer Lez Brotherston offers little more set than these precious objects, both sentimental and practical, accompanying their owners to change each scene (the Sabbath table is extended to accommodate visiting student Perchik by adding a trunk covered with a tablecloth).
So as they dare to put down tentative roots in Anatevka, instead of the opening number Tradition bursting brashly onto the stage, its performers earn the right to share the significance of their traditions with their audience.
It makes the humour of Omid Djalili’s splendidly warm and rounded Tevye all the richer and more nuanced. Iranian-born Bahai Djalili is no stranger to playing Jews. On his CV are Fagin in Oliver! and a Muslim who discovers he was born Jewish in Infidel – you could now add he was born to play Tevye. He splendidly embodies the conflicted milkman torn between the security blanket of tradition and losing his daughters if he won’t face up to the changes their generation embraces. And he effortlessly laughs with his audience at himself and that dilemma, coining anew those catchphrases: “On the one hand… on the other hand…” and “As the Good Book says…” so you feel his God might laugh sympathetically too.
He’s well-matched by Tracy-Ann Oberman’s brisk, dry-humoured, long-suffering Golde, especially in their touching “Silver Wedding” duet Do You Love Me? (“after 25 years it’s nice to know!”).
The show’s elegant structure has each of his three oldest daughters push the boundaries a little further. Tzeitel gets her father onside so she can marry her poor Jewish tailor rather than wealthy widower, the butcher Lazar Wolf. Hodel and student revolutionary Perchik will marry without Tevye’s permission if necessary. And Chava must accept that she is dead to her father if she marries ‘out’ – her beloved Fyedka is a Gentile. All are strongly cast here. Simbi Akande’s Tzeitel is touchingly single-minded in her love for Jos Slovick’s doggedly determined Motel. Emma Kingston’s spiky Hodel vividly charts her awakening love and awareness of a world outside Anatevka, as she falls for Louis Maskell’s ardent, assertive Perchik. And Rose Shalloo’s vulnerable, bespectacled Chava is heartbreaking, pleading for acceptance of Luke Fetherston’s sensitive Fyedka.
Watching the “little unofficial demonstrations” that the local militia are ordered to carry out against their Jewish population, starting with the chilling disruption of the joy and emotion of Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding, you can understand Tevye’s tipping point.
Set pieces like the wedding and Tevye’s dream conjuring Grandma Tzeitel (Mia Soteriou) to speak for Motel and Lazar Wolf’s formidable late wife Fruma Sarah (Laura Tebbutt) to forbid her husband’s remarriage are imaginatively realised, the latter with stunning lighting (David Hersey) and fiery effects. And Alistair David’s choreography has Anatevka’s Jews hold themselves with an authentic upper-body erectness, proud and graceful, whether in a circle dance for both sexes or the famous men-only bottle dance.
So if you’ve ever sniffled your way through what you thought was a schmaltzy musical, this production earns real tears alongside the gales of laughter, above all as those battered bags come out again when Anatevka’s Jewish population receives its marching orders. Here are the parallels with today’s migrations. May tomorrow’s loyal citizens look back with love and admiration at the brave forebears who made perilous journeys to uncertain futures in the West.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Johan Persson
Fiddler on the Roof runs until Saturday 2 September. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (various Wed, Thu & Sat; phone to confirm). From £10. Chichester Festival Theatre, PO19 6AP. 012 4378 1312. www.cft.org.uk