The Dead Fiddler

Isaac Bashevis Singer, adapted and directed by David Zoob
Sacred and Profane Theatre
New End Theatre

Production photograph

Sacred and Profane Theatre's production of The Dead Fiddler is reminiscent of Chagall's art. Beautifully choreographed in colour and sound, the audience is invited to join a family home in a shtetl (Jewish village).

The play is based on Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story of the same title. When, in 1978, Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the academy stated its reasons for the award for his impassioned narrative art which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal human conditions to life. David Zoob's adaptation of the story brilliantly conveys these elements.

The small stage consists of a wooden wall depicting a house in a Polish shtetl around the end of the 19th Century. There, uninvited, guests arrive who all too literally visit the protagonist, Liebe Yentl (Lydia Baksh), a young widow.

The first caller is the soul/spirit of Getsl, a dead fiddler (Ezra Hjalmarsson), who couldn't get into paradise, and hell was roasting hot so he gives the watchman a slip and finds his way into the body of a good looking girl, namely Yentl (the unsuspecting hostess). He gleefully confesses his excitement in crawling into her breast.

In Jewish folklore a wandering spirit that attaches itself to a living person and controls their behaviour is known as a dybbuk - which in Hebrew means "glued to" or "tightly attached to". Incidentally, S Ansky's The Dybbuk was the first play on this subject that became central to the Yiddish and Hebrew repertories.

Yentel's father's desperate attempts to drive the dybbuk away by threatening to use Holy Names, excommunication and blowing the Rams Horn are met with contempt and derisive retorts. The Dead Fiddler taunts: You can't scare me with all that mushugas (crazy nonsense). The parasitic wandering soul is used as a dramatic device to voice ideas that no-one in the traditional shtetl would dare express. Through Yentel, Getsl can flaunt traditions and express the outrageous. A rabbi is promptly brought in to perform an exorcism. The exorcism fails. The dybbuk remains undeterred and is totally contemptuous of all the religious superstitions and claims it is better to be an honest rake than a sanctimonious fake.

Baksh's superbly emulates a bewildered and semi-conscious possessed young woman. Her murmurings and Hjalmarssos' voice are perfectly in synch throughout.

Through Yentl the dybbuk communicates with the locals who are hungry for gossip and confessions, at least until tales unravel that touch a network of raw nerves, exposing a series of misdemeanours which in turn trigger anxiety and discomfort.

Then in comes visitor number two.Yentl's body is invaded by a second dybbuk. This time it is the spiritl of Beyle Tslove (Heather Snaith), a young woman who once worked as a barmaid, then as a whore. She was the eighth daughter of a Chasid and a loafer who walked out on her mother for producing yet another daughter. She died at the age of 27 in the poorhouse. Snaith's performance was riveting.

In a humorous and witty tale she unravels the social plights she had to endure in her short wrenched life and the torments after death.

The spirits of Getsl and Tslove exchange insults until Zeinvl, the butcher's wife, suggests the Dead Fiddler and the equally dead but very sexy prostitute get married.

The simple but effective costumes designed by Wai Yin Kwok, together with Roderic Skeaping's Jewish folk melodies, are entirely engaging and the audience will find the bizarre tale of The Dead Fiddler difficult to resist.

Reviewer: Rivka Jacobson

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