david pinski

Review: Treasure ★★★ – Pinski’s parade of shtetl shnorrers would do Gogol’s Government Inspector proud, says Judi Herman

© Richard Lakos Could Pinksi be the Jewish Gogol? His story certainly follows in the great tradition of The Government Inspector. It makes you wonder if he could possibly know the writings of that 16th-century sceptic Ben Jonson, whose citizen comedies Volpone and The Alchemist also depend on wily antiheroes pulling the wool over the eyes of a succession of greedy, gullible types for whom you have no sympathy at all.

Chone the gravedigger’s affable idiot son Judke brings home a stash of gold coins. He’s dug them up in the corner of the graveyard where he’s buried his beloved dog. Trouble is, he can’t remember exactly where that is, so there’s no way of knowing how much more there is, if any. His pretty, resourceful sister Tille seizes on as the opportunity of a lifetime, with a clever ruse to use the money to buy a premature ‘trousseau’ to convince folk (especially marriage brokers and prospective bridegrooms) that there’s a fabled amount more where that came from. Her gloomy, grasping parents though, see the coins – and her ruse – as a threat rather than an opportunity, which will just attract all the wrong sort of attention. In a way both are correct, you could see the glass as half full or half empty.

The delicious Tille, (truly scrumptious, in Olivia Bernstone’s glowing performance) does indeed attract a matchmaker to her door straightaway. But he is followed by a parade of ever more grasping and opportunistic denizens of the shtetl, from the President of the synagogue to the previous owner of the field where Judke is presumed to have found the coins.

Pinski’s comedy descends into potentially uproarious farce as the villagers themselves descend on the graveyard on their frantic treasure hunt. Yet he also builds in moments of quiet storytelling – a small chorus of children exchanging moral tales. And the climax of the play even takes in magical realism, for the residents of the graveyard rise to compare notes on the eventful night when the living literally trample on their graves, in their obsession with what is transitory, material.

As discussed in the current issue of JR and elsewhere on this blog, Pinski’s play was extraordinarily popular and remained in the Yiddish repertoire over 30 years, until the Shoah, when it was even performed in the Vilna Ghetto.

© Richard Lakos

On the strength of Alice Malin’s production at the Finborough Theatre, the main attraction must be Pinski’s heroine, an extraordinarily outspoken and sensual young woman, rising like the phoenix above the strictures of life, especially for a woman, in this small, claustrophobic Jewish community. So obviously in command of the situation is she, that the visiting marriage broker soon realises that it makes sense to deal directly with her, cutting out her mother, the middle woman. She is inspired, intoxicated by the coins that represent a way out of poverty if she plays her cards right. That of course is in the writing but Bernstone revels in Tille’s ingenuity and sheer spunk!

The contrast with her mother, Jachne-Braine’s (Fiz Marcus) constantly downturned mouth and disapproving voice and mien, is obviously important. The clue is in her name for Jachne can suggest a woman is not just a gossip and busybody but also coarse or shallow.

Meanness seems to run in the family, for so poor are the gravedigger and his wife that they are prepared to fight their children for the coins. This is hardly the archetypal Jewish mother looking out for her child and the money gets in the way of Chone's (James Pearse) paternal feelings too. Luckily for Sid Sagar’s touchingly gangling and awkward Judke, he and Tille do look out for each other and there is a sweetnesss in the bond between them.

Adaptor Colin Chambers a prolific theatre writer. Indeed, his book Other Spaces was an inspiration for me at university. His translation includes some useful nips and tucks, though for my money, he could have made a few more. Those children telling tales have been left to their own devices by parents who have only treasure hunting on their minds. I guess Pinski deliberately changes pace and slows down the momentum here, but this interlude of Brechtian moralising from these precocious infants (the young actors acquit themselves very well, but their characters are perhaps a little priggish) is not entirely successful. And each hopeful, acquisitive visitor to the apparently nouveau riche household rather out stays their welcome, once they have established their characters and motives.

Chambers’ translation, with its carefully-chosen words has that ‘old-fashioned’ feel that gives a sense of a different time and place, though it does perhaps feel a trifle self-conscious. Alice Malin directs her large (19-strong) cast with a larger-than-life playing style to match, which again would work even better if the scenes were shorter. Fiz Marcus’ Jachne-Braine in particular and James Pearse’s Chone to a lesser extent, adopt facial masks and find a trope and a note for their characters, though again, both would be even more effective if the scenes were shorter.

Designer Rebecca Brower’s dark all-wooden set plays its part in creating the lost world of the shtetl. It’s about as spacious as I have seen in the Finborough’s tiny space, which is just as well with such a large cast of villagers. Happily Fiddler on the Roof without the music it is not (although there is music for atmosphere and to link scenes, it is not live or specially composed, which is perhaps a missed opportunity). But it throws light on a fascinating writer and his vital contribution to the body of popular Yiddish literature.

By Judi Herman

Treasure runs until Saturday 14 November. Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Rd, SW10 9ED; 0844 847 1652. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

If I were a rich girl… As Yiddish gem Treasure is unearthed at Finborough Theatre, Judi Herman polishes up on its backstory

© Richard Lakos What do The Dybbuk, The Golem and Fiddler on the Roof have in common? Their stories were all originally written in Yiddish. From Franz Kafka to Danny Kaye, the influence of Yiddish theatre is far reaching. Four years before the first professional production in Yiddish took place in a Romanian wine garden in 1876, one of its most influential writers, David Pinski, was born into a cosmopolitan Jewish family in Mohilev, Russia (now Belarus). He moved to Warsaw, Switzerland, Vienna and Berlin before emigrating to New York in 1899, where he lived for 50 years. While there he was an active member of Jewish cultural and political life and was president of the Jewish National Workers’ Alliance from 1920-22, and president of the Jewish Culture Society from 1930-53. Finally, in 1949, the committed left-wing Zionist moved to Israel, where he lived until his death in 1959.

Pinski wrote over 60 plays and there were novels too. His subject matter ranged from stories of the lives, struggles and dreams of the ordinary Jewish folk to Biblical themes, including both King David and King Solomon, their wives, and the coming of a future Messiah.

Treasure is arguably his comic masterpiece, revived here in a brand new adaptation by Colin Chambers. The play premiered in 1912 and remained popular in the Yiddish repertoire until the 1940s (with a production in the Vilna Ghetto in 1943), was staged in German by Max Reinhardt in 1919 and in English on Broadway in 1920. The story follows poor gravedigger’s daughter Tille, who must decide whether or not to keep a pile of gold coins her brother finds at the graveyard. Should she hand it in and remain in a life of drudgery or use it to turn her world around?

Its latest incarnation in a production at London’s Finborough Theatre is directed by Alice Malin. What drew her to Pinski’s comedy? “It’s a story of female emancipation and it has real wow factor. Tille seeks freedom by using found money for her own ends and that wowed me. Plus it’s resonant today in how humanely it treats poverty and approaches the subject of inequality. Its dirt poor protagonists are united by the same goals, being free and visible and having enough money to live. It’s really funny and outrageous, part farce, part tragedy.” Not to give too much away, as occupants of the graveyard come to life, it sounds as if Pinski’s story is magic realism. Alice agrees and adds that it’s “a strange surreal expressionist drama, judiciously nipped and tucked by Colin Chambers.”

Malin is confident the audience will share her enchantment with the “wry, witty heroine with chutzpah". She explains that "Tille is in her late teens and so poor that she has no prospects of marriage till her brother finds the treasure. She takes a massive gamble and going on the journey of its consequences is really intoxicating . She takes a massive punt buying clothes to make herself look genuinely rich so that potential husbands will consider her – not because she is vain and wants to look pretty, but to seize the chance of a better life. The whole community, especially the traditional menfolk, descend on the graveyard and demand that she be put back in her place, but she refuses and manages to keep one step ahead of them. Her mother Jachne Braine is constantly coming back with sarcastic comments, on the one hand terrified of the money and everyone wanting something from her, but on the other overwhelmed by the possibilities. The production boasts a cast of 15, with three Jewish cast members – Olivia Bernstone as Tille, Fiz Marcus as Jachne and Felicity Davidson as a town gossip. Malin assures that there will be dancing too, because “klezmer music and dance is really important.”

Treasure runs from Tuesday 20 October to Saturday 14 November. Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Rd, SW10 9ED; 0844 847 1652. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk