Review - Fiddler on the Roof at the Playhouse Theatre
This is suddenly a golden age for the forever-classics of musical theatre, from London where Sondheim's Company and Follies have both had spellbinding reinventions, to Broadway where there are currently revelatory revivals of My Fair Lady, Oklahoma! and Kiss Me, Kate. And now, hot on the heels of an Off-Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof - performed, for the first time, in Yiddish, the language that would have actually been spoken in the Russian shtetl of Anatevka where it is set - comes this absolutely thrilling London revival of the 1964 musical.
One of the hallmarks of these stage greats is that each of them only grows with age; and that is utterly true of Fiddler, with its haunting and always-resonant portrait of the Jewish diaspora from Russia at the beginning of the last century. As various members of this community leave for Siberia, Krakow, the Holy Land and of course America, you can't help thinking of the fate that would have awaited some of them less than 40 years later in the camps of Nazi Germany. But it also speaks to any refugee crisis being played out today.
This is famously a show that finds the universal in the deeply particular; its late book writer Joseph Stein once wrote about attending the show's Japanese premiere in 1967 and being asked by the producer, "Do they understand this show in America?" He replied, "Yes, of course, we wrote it for America. Why do you ask?’ And the producer said, "Because it’s so Japanese."
And that's because the society there was similarly patriarchal - and also on the cusp of major societal shifts. Here we watch as a father - a humble but earthily vivid milkman called Tevye and his loyal and long-suffering wife Golde - desperately negotiate some of those changes with the choices their five daughters want to make - for themselves. The eldest Tzeitel has chosen her own husband, a local tailor, over the rich butcher that the village's matchmaker has negotiated for her. Hodel chooses a revolutionary student called Perchik - and follows him to exile in Siberia after he is arrested and sent there. Chava, meanwhile, breaches a bigger divide: she falls in love with the non-Jewish Fyedka - and is cruelly erased from the family's history.
All of this is played out against the terrifying landscape of displacement that the community will soon suffer. And Trevor Nunn's production (that originated at the Menier Chocolate Factory last year) draws us into the intimate life of this community by making the audience an intricate part of it. The stalls of London's Playhouse Theatre have been entirely reconfigured, with a thrust stage extending into the auditorium which has been enfolded by designer Robert Jones with an outline silhouette of the village, and filled a collection of wooden shacks that face us.
This beautiful yet harsh stage picture is the sort of directorial feat that Nunn excels at bringing an inhibited sense of life to; it feels like the immersive environments that he created with designer John Napier for Cats and the original (soon to be departed) Les Miserables.
But if that strong visual image - augmented by the stunning chiaroscuro lighting of Tim Lutkin, the peasant costumes of Jonathan Lipman and the dazzling folk choreography of Matt Cole - is definitive, so are the fully-inhabited performances of a brilliant ensemble cast that turn this portrait of a community under existential threat into a compassionate joy. Andy Nyman leads as a warm, spellbinding Tevye, with Judy Kuhn and Louise Gold in strong support as his wife Golde and the village matchmaker Yente.
This is a gorgeous production of a simply glorious musical.
Fiddler on the Roof tickets are available now.