Fiddler on The Roof, Chichester Theatre ★★★★
The world has come a long way since 1905, but fear of the other remains current
‘Fiddler On The Roof’ is a rather tricky musical to get right. On one hand you risk coming off too shtetl-kitsch, and on the other you can be in for a gloomy, sometimes caricatured ride. Happily, this production does not fall into any of these traps.
The staging is definitely clever; set entirely out of boxes, suitcases and carts, there is a strong visual metaphor for change, unease and the underlying tension within the small Jewish community of Anetevka. The constant moving and reinvention of a battered old case or chair is oddly poignant within a group so used to having to start again. It works well: slickly implemented by the cast, you are forced to play house in the dark and imagine a shabbat table, a wedding or shop. So often large, impressive set change interferes with the plot, so I applaud the set designer for this minimalist approach.
Tracy-Ann Oberman is completely believable as the imposing, traditional mother Golde; every line is beautifully honest with the dry quick Jewish humour that fills the play with life. Her relationship with Yente, the matchmaker will be particularly poignant to many Jewish members of the audience, as strong friendships and alliances between female Jewish characters are hard to find, despite being so central to both the culture and faith. You really believe they are never going to meet again, and you share the sadness and stiffness of her restraint. It was enjoyable to see the daughters take a step back from centre stage to allow the older characters to explore their emotions between dialogue- this really made the play for me. The use of space and silence among the cast is just incredible.
The singing is phenomenal, again, particularly among the lead characters. When Omid Djalili, playing Papa Tevye, battles with his internal love for his daughter Chava and strong religious principles, you absolutely believe him and it is completely devastating. The pitch, the volume and the emotion changes so realisitically you almost forget he is singing but truly feeling. There are plenty of pretty melodies within this musical, as you will well know, but the ones that come off as the most powerful are the ones where the actors allow the emotion to take the reins. Similarly, the sheer anguish from the chorus songs on leaving Anetevka is heart-breaking. Every prayer, silence and pause fills the stage.
The play is the ultimate ‘less is more’- more focus on character, less on elaborate staging, more focus on emotion, less on slick ballads, and more focus on relationships than pace. And it works. This isn’t like any other production you will see of this musical, but it might just be the most powerful. With a world where minorities are being forced out of their homes, cultures and friendships, and we are forced to face up to the changing nature of what ‘being religious’ means, this will definitely give you something to think about.
Fiddler on The Roof is on at the Chichester Festival Theatre from 10 July — 2 September. Tickets can be found on the Chichester Festival Theatre Website.