Review: Smile Upon Us, Lord ★★★★ – Travelling hopefully on a Jewish road trip

Celebrated Lithuanian director Rimas Tuminas grew up alongside Jewish compatriots and his familiarity with Jewish life and custom informs this glorious evocation. Smile Upon Us, Lord, which Tuminas adapted for the stage from two novels by fellow Lithuanian and celebrated writer Grigory Kanovich, tells of a world lost forever in the Holocaust. Indeed a fatalism by turns melancholy and filled with the laughter of self-mocking recognition imbues this picaresque tale of three men on a mission to the big city, leaving behind the familiarity of the shtetl to meet new travelling companions and adventures along the way.

There’s plenty of laughter, evoked by the philosophical exchanges of the travellers (coming with a brief delay as most read the surtitles) and by the sheer physical knockabout of this supremely versatile cast. This is ensemble acting achieved only by familiarity and trust between members of a close-knit company working around a handful of strong leads.

Efraim Dudak (Vladimir Simonov), an elderly stonecutter gets news that his son is awaiting trial in Vilnius for attempting to assassinate the governor-general. Reluctantly he decides he must leave the safe familiarity of the shtetl to be there for his son. Fathers and errant sons are a theme, for his old friend Smule-Sender Lazarek (Aleksei Guskov), the water-carrier, offers to be his travelling companion, hoping to find a letter in Vilnius from his son in America. And Avner Rosenthal (Viktor Sukhorukov), a prosperous storekeeper fallen on hard times, hitches a lift, just for the change of scene.

And change of scene is what they get. The action moves seamlessly from shtetl to road, thanks to thrillingly choreographed company set building, creating designer Adomas Jacovskis’ stunning stage pictures to composer Faustus Latenas’ evocative music – joyous and mournful by turns. Their crowning creation is a horse-drawn wagon piled impossibly high with precariously balanced furniture, as if the travellers are taking the shtetl with them. There’s a poetic, satisfying economy that makes a pile of logs serve as bathhouse, forest clearing and a tombstone.

All the actors create wonderfully rounded characters, revelling in the humour behind their philosophical resignation laced with feisty defiance. “We are going to our children and they are going in the opposite direction,” declares Efraim. And they meet some extraordinary characters on the way, notably Victor Dobronravov’s sly “blind” trickster Khloyne-Ghenek, who provides the evening’s biggest laugh, ascertaining the Jewishness of the travellers with a poke around their groins with his stick; and Grigory Antipenko’s mysterious, ‘Palestinian’, a visionary seeking his promised land, whose fervour endows him with such superpowers as walking unscathed on hot coals.

Yulia Rutberg is extraordinary as a smiling giddy she-goat, her swirling white dress and one black shoe part of her graceful caprine movement quality. Throughout there are disturbing undercurrents as the party nears the city, fending off wolves, perhaps standing for pogroms, for the coming destruction. There were well-deserved smiles and cheers at the curtain call. The Lord is surely smiling too.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Valeriy Miasnikov

Read our interview with Vakhtangov’s artistic director Rimas Tuminas in the January issue of JR.

Smile Upon Us, Lord runs until Until Saturday 3 March. 7pm. £16-£55. Barbican Theatre, EC2Y 8DS. www.barbican.org.uk