You can go a long, long way without ever changing station. That’s the message in Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre’s presentation of two novels by Lithuanian writer, Grigory Kanovich.
The story follows three impoverished Jewish compatriots as they travel in a wagon from their rural market town – or shtetl – to the Lithuanian capital. Superficially, the narrative is driven by one man’s mission to attend his son’s trial, but under the surface themes of pilgrimage and existential doubt rage fiercely, as Vilnius is provocatively pitched as “the Jerusalem for those who have neither stamina or money to go to the Promised Land”.
And as these duelling layered journeys pan out, it’s clear that nobody is really moving. Efraim Dudak, Šmulé-Sender Lazarek and Avner Rosenthal – played by Vladimir Simonov, Aleksei Guskov and Viktor Sukhorukov, respectively – began their voyage as impoverished men, and this is how they will end. Through shouts and pleas, to each other and to their God, they test the limits of their status. Pitifully, they compare their troubled plight with that of the goat, who “doesn’t have to scrounge for food,” and the mare, who is unable to articulate her poverty and unhappiness. In life, in death, in waking, in working, at home and in the holy land, the characters are trapped in their pre-established classification. “What we are now,” laments Efraim “is what we’ll be when we die”.
Yet Vakhtangov’s Artistic Director, Rimas Tuminas, brings a dripping wealth of finesse and excess to this expressive tale of stripped-back poverty. Misery and hunger may lie at the core of the narrative, but their thematic influence doesn’t bleed too far into the style of the performance. The programme notes are littered with accolades and awards, and the level of performance is suitably exquisite. Sukhorukov, in particular, is glorious as the pilgrim grocer, swinging between succinct anguish and Shakespearean foolery. Such is the language of his expression, so articulate is his no-holds-barred mime, the surtitles above him become almost redundant.
Throughout, Tuminas’s direction infuses these tales of woe with a certain grandeur, and scenes of threadbare village life are opulent in their depiction, with a robust cast of over forty performers pouring over the stage. The lead characters exchange knowing proverbs with a dignity that exceeds their general sense of pride, proclaiming loudly and sternly into the middle distance. Meanwhile, Composer Faustas Latenas’s jaunty soundtrack adds a sense of epic tribulation to the work, as folk dance including squatwork adds cultural affluence to this pessimistic adventure.
Adomas Jacovskis’s set furiously underlines the pious drive of the journey, providing a textured and multifaceted take on the history of Judaism. A high, roughly-assembled wall dominates the back of the stage, immediately bringing to mind the boundaries used to contain Jewish people throughout time – literally, the ghettos and camps, and figuratively, the insults and rejections. There is a significant scene where characters seek to escape over this division. At another point, men and women line up facing this wall in prayer: a gendered division evoking Jerusalem’s Western Wall that reaffirms the idea of pilgrimage.
Beyond its misery and seemingly futile perseverance, Tuminas’s work is alight with clowning and overindulgent bonhomie. There’s a charming scene, ripe in visual comedy, where Efraim brings his she-goat to be milked. With one socked foot, one black heel and a bell around her neck, Yulia Rutberg’s caprine character embarks on a lopsided uncertain skip towards her master, a cup in each hand and a raw, boundless delight when the job is done. While the characters’ endeavours are fruitless, the abundance of oddball cheeriness becomes the most memorable aspect of a piece rich in style and bursting with gallows humour.
Smile Upon Us, Lord was performed at the Barbican. Click here for more details.