A Day of Pleasure

Isaac Bashevis Singer (adapted by Stuart Richman)
The Useful Donkey Theatre Company
Liverpool Playhouse Studio

The storyteller’s art is ancient and noble. Never merely a campfire entertainer, the teller of tales was also custodian of the tribe’s history and value system.

Writing in Yiddish, though fluent in several other languages (Polish, Hebrew, English) Isaac Bashevis Singer was, in some respects, just this kind of custodian, and the tales offered to us in this staging of extracts from his autobiographical work, A Day of Pleasure, are crafted remembrances from his boyhood in the Jewish quarter of early 20th century Warsaw.

The Useful Donkey’s production places the audience around the “campfire” of Singer’s study in his New York apartment (an armchair, a bookcase, and a writing desk forming almost a grotto for the telling of stories—nicely designed by Anna Gooch).

It is 1978, and the writer is packing his suitcase and waiting for a taxi to take him to the airport. He has been invited to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. The fourth wall comes down from the moment the actor takes the stage; the conceit is that Singer (played by Stuart Richman) will share some stories with us before it is time for him to leave.

This adaptation is Richman’s, and his warmth as a teller of tales, alongside his experience as an actor, just about manage to hold the audience through 90 minutes of, frankly, undramatic monologue.

As one might expect from so esteemed a writer, the stories offer some memorable lines and vivid characters: the man whose ‘entire life was one great “Yes!”’; the ancient gentile laundress who survives a dreadful winter to complete one final job, declaring ‘the wash would not let me die.’ There is charm here, and Richman engages us firmly enough for the occasional moments of genuine humour to receive a generous welcome.

However, it is hard to see what justifies the staging of this piece. Richman’s delivery might serve radio or an audiobook well, but what is there here to warrant an audience buying a ticket and venturing out into the night? There is no journey (in the dramatic sense), no question posed in the audience’s mind (‘what will become of our hero?’) Perhaps most damningly, no clear case is made here for Singer as a worthy Nobel Laureate (which surely does an injustice to the artist).

Neil Sissons’s direction is unobtrusive, though, having set up the sense of a world beyond the stage, he abandons it at key moments. As the show opens, Richman enters, already in character, from some other part of the apartment, yet after the interval, picks his way awkwardly through the set to settle in an armchair before starting to act again.

Stranger yet, the confusing ending. Why not a simple departure (the man is going to the airport)? My companion might not be alone in thinking Isaac Bashevis Singer missed his flight, having died quietly in his armchair, that fateful day in 1978. (Note: Singer died in 1991).

Some fortunate people are, of course, multi-talented. For the rest of us, to get good at one thing in our lives requires talent and a great deal of dedication. As a writer, I’m aware that an ability to point meaningfully and boss people around will never be enough to make me a director. Neither does my penchant for funny voices and an ability to read out loud make me into an actor. I hope I will never be so foolish as to undervalue the abilities and knowledge required of the clear-minded director or the truthful actor.

To direct well is hard. To act well is hard. And writing well? That’s not easy either.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson