Blessings: On your head and in other places

IF I were a rich man … Douwe Bijkersma reprises the icon role of Tevye in the Brooklyn Theatre’s Fiddler on the Roof. Photograph courtesy Brooklyn Theatre.

WHO CAN EVER pooh-pooh the pathos and tragedy of Tevye the dairyman? Living in a small shtetl in an Eastern European place called Anatevka, which is threatened by rising anti-Semitism, this character, penned by the inimitable Sholem Aleichem from 1894 is the profoundly religious father of five feisty girls, who each have their own ideas about love. You can experience that magical musical which sits at the height of Jewish schlock, Fiddler on the Roof staged online by the Brooklyn Theatre until the end of December.

Directed by Klaus-Louis Jansen van Vuuren, the production is special because of the bizarre circumstances in which it has been made. The Brooklyn Theatre, one of Pretoria’s gems, has – owing to the ongoing pandemic – been physically dismantled. The people who ran it so beautifully have left the building. Fiddler was the theatre’s last production: it was filmed to a seat-less auditorium. What’s more, it was filmed based largely on the performers’ private performances on their cell phones. What you see is a mix of their audio recordings with mimed visuals.

Technically it segues together like a masterpiece and for many moments in the work’s trajectory, you feel as though you are online with an international theatre company, a deft hand at the notion of making stage works work online.

Coupled with really beautiful ensemble choral work and a Tevye (Douwe Bijkersma), who at first seems too young to carry the burden of his woes, but proves himself beautifully in song and characterisation, the work also features Marie McCrae as Yenta, the matchmaker.

If you are familiar with this work, you might assume that you will need to have a box of tissues at hand, to catch your tears of nostalgia. But alas, you may not use it. The musical lacks the hard-edged – and often darkly hilarious – brusqueness of life in the shtetl. Many a flat South African accent dominates and undermines the spoken word elements of this work, which jiggers the expectations and shows the performers’ lack of familiarity with what makes the authentic texture of the work so emotionally triggering. There is also a lack of heart and fire to the dream in which Tevye must convince his wife that Mottel the poor tailor is a better match for their eldest daughter than the rich butcher.

The resonance of Fiddler as a cultural entity, as Steven Cohen’s spoof of it in 2000 in his work Tradition and Renos Spanoudes’s production of it in 2016 proved, is rich with the concatenation of good things and bad, terror and joy. It’s harsh and scary at times, and doesn’t pull punches in the faces of naivety, cruelty or crudeness. It’s a work moored in the complexity of massive cornerstone issues like the marriage of a daughter, and further, the marriage of a daughter to a man not of the faith. The attention to details of Jewish tradition, which contains everything from diet to cemeteries, self-deprecating humour to the stubborn determination to get by against all odds, is very preciously stated in this production, as the script dictates. What it lacks is robustness. And madness.

By its nature, the piece begs comparison with the musical’s benchmark: Norman Jewison’s 1971 filmed version. Featuring the fabulous Welsh performer Ruth Madoc (as the ghost of Fruma Sarah) and Topol as Tevye, this piece has become embedded in the memory of easily hundreds of thousands of fans, not only as a film but also as an LP. Indeed, it’s a Jewish cultural reference point bar none. Jansen van Vuuren’s version of it is sweet. It has heart. It brings together some of the production’s loveliest of songs from If I Were a Rich Man, to Tradition, Sunrise Sunset and more. While it lacks savvy as a self-reflective a gem of kitsch, it offers a nod to the precariousness of our own situation, threatened on every side. It’s a shot of courage for the theatre establishment and something which you can tune into, at R100 a view, to keep things kicking.

Fiddler on the Roof is directed by Klaus-Louis Jansen van Vuuren. Produced by Willem Vogel and Daniël Vos, it is written by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein, based on a story by Sholem Aleichem. With performances by Douwe Bijkersma, Laurette Borcher, Marina Botha-Spies, Kay Dewes, Rachel Garde, Stephan Gericke, Klaus-Louis Jansen van Vuuren, Lara Kleynhans, Manie Köhn, Laurette Kruger, Mia Kruger, Petrus Kruger, Marena Lotriet, Erica Loubser, Benjamin Malan, Marie McCrae, James McPhail, Runhild Meyberg, Milan Minnie, Jana Nothnagel, Hannah Rudnicki, Tinus Spies, Henning Marko Swanepoel, Peter Thornhill, Logan Timbre, Bevan Timm, Christopher Vale, Joshua Van Niekerk, Riaan van Niekerk, Deirdré van Schalkwyk, Gavin Vermeulen, Jean-Pierre Verster, Riana von Vollenhoven and Noelien Wilsnach and the Gauteng Philharmonic Orchestra, comprising Pieter Bezuidenhout, Jurgens de Lange, Laetitia De Lange, Ryan Kirsten, Neil Krog, Linnet Labuschagne, Jaco Smit, Lizet Smith and Margot Smythe, it features creative input by Christopher Vale (musical direction), JD Labuschagne (sound), Klaus-Louis Jansen van Vuuren (lighting), Charl Cronje (video editing) and Deirdré van Schalkwyk (props and costumes). It is streamed online until 31 December.

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