I admit (and I don’t think I’m in the minority) that if you asked what I knew about Yiddish theatre I’d probably look blank then mutter something about Topol and Tradition.
With one of its early hits – Treasure – being revived at the Finborough Theatre, director Alice Malin has written a valuable introduction to Yiddish theatre exploring its popularity and its radicalism. Wildly popular in the late 1800s and early twentieth century, theatre in Yiddish captured a folklore and spirit of predominantly Eastern European Judaism, and had particular success in London’s East End where dedicated punters – particularly Russian Jewish refugees – would apparently queue round the block. Its proliferance reduced in the mid/late twentieth century in parallel with the decline of Yiddish as a spoken language, and – barring the odd revival – the Yiddish canon remains largely unperformed today.
Written in 1906, David Pinksi’s Treasure – adapted here by Colin Chambers – was a Yiddish classic of its time. A small-town fable, it follows Judke, a gravedigger’s son, who claims to have discovered a stash of gold sovereigns while burying his pet dog. He turns over the coins and their location to his sister, Tille, who embarks on a spending spree so lavish that the rest of the town is convinced she must be sitting on a bigger fortune than she actually is. “I just want to buy myself an ever so modest husband,” Tille declares. Cue a steady stream of money-chasers – the matchmaker, the charity collectors, the president of the congregation, and the wonderfully described “Chief Citizen and Capitalist” Soskin – each after a piece of the mythical fortune.
For the most part, Treasure effectively functions as a series of credits and deferments: the credit Tille gains through her apparent fortune; the deferred belief that the stash is as big as she claims; the taking-for-granted that the money will be found and the financial potential realised. Tille sees through the greed that underpins social expectations and manipulates it to her own ends (albeit ends that, through their overbearing focus on marriage, might ultimately reaffirm the patriarchal constructs she has sought to out-wit), with Pinski taking satirical pot-shots at the claimants to her wealth en route.
But Tille’s narrative is swamped by an over-long and over-written script that rarely gives Olivia Bernstone’s central performance a chance to breathe. It’s unclear whether Treasure’s stodginess is a hangover from Pinski’s original text or Colin Chamber’s adaptation, but between them they’re guilty of a serious lack of pruning. With the exception of the final scenes, where Malin’s production revels in the half-light of a graveyard treasure hunt and pins its conclusion to the living dead, Treasure operates using the same basic formula for scene after declarative scene, as a new character enters to pronounce judgement on the moral quandary. Perhaps in its own time the cumulative effect of this approach might have carried more resonance, with seemingly every member of the village chipping in to create a sense of the entire community being seen on stage. But to a contemporary audience such resonance is lost, and the stuffiness of Chambers’ adaptation coupled with Malins’ period staging fails to offer much to cling onto beyond a basic and familiar tale of greed.
A more radical or expansive production – or frankly just a different design – might have polished things up; but here, with a cast of 17 fighting for stage space on a set that’s already so big for the venue that an audience member tripped over it pre-show, it feels little more than a stuffy curio. No matter how convincing Malin is about the importance of rediscovering Yiddish work – and how intriguing the work of Pinski’s contemporaries sounds – this particular script does little to enrich us; Treasure should have remained buried.