King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Fiddler on the Roof premiered on Broadway in 1964, a whole seven years before I was born. And yet, even though it has existed longer than I have, and despite my theatre habit, I was almost entirely ignorant of this musical before tonight. I mean, I knew the title, and I was familiar with a couple of the songs, of course, but I knew nothing of the story or the characters. So I came to this modern classic almost entirely unprepared.
Most people probably already know what I didn’t: that the play is about a Jewish community, living precariously in the Russian Pale of Settlement in 1905. Their village, Anatekva, is a temporary safe haven, where, for the most part, people rub along quite well. Teyve (played with assurance and charisma by Alex Kantor) has just one big worry: how to find suitable husbands for his five dowry-less daughters. But times are a-changing, and he soon discovers that he needn’t trouble himself; his daughters are more than capable of finding lovers for themselves, whatever he may think of them. And, by and large, Teyve gloomily accepts his diminishing role as a patriarch, although Chava (Katie McLean) pushes things just a bit too far when she falls for Fyedka (Keith McLeod), a Russian youth. The Russians are the enemy.
Edinburgh Music Theatre’s production is very good indeed, the kind of polished amateur performance that gladdens the heart. Direction and music (by Ian Hammond Brown and Paul Gudgin, respectively) are proficient and adept, and the crowd work (choreographed by Sarah Wilkie) is beautifully done. The performances are uniformly strong; this feels like real ensemble work, but Libby Crabtree’s Golde is particularly good: an engaging interpretation of a fascinating role.
Standout moments include the nightmare scene, where Teyve constructs an elaborate lie to convince Golde to allow Tzeitel (Sally Pugh) to marry impoverished tailor, Motel (Fraser Shand). The choreography here is lively and inventive, and an absolute joy to watch.
And then there’s that devastating ending. I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to reveal what happens when the play is so well-known. But, for me, it is a complete surprise, and a jolting one at that. I sit watching the villagers gather up their belongings as they are evicted from their homes, and I can’t stop the tears from falling. I’ve just spent ninety minutes getting to know these people; I’ve laughed with them, shared their gossip and their fears. And now they’re being exiled, sent to seek another home. The slow circular trudge around the stage feels like a never-ending sorrow. And how apposite a story for our times: this is what it means to be a refugee. Not a cockroach, a scrounger, a potential terrorist. Just this. People. In all their many guises. Sent away from all they know and love, and needing welcome somewhere new.
An excellent production of a truly moving play.