Smile Upon Us, Lord
Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia, Barbican Theatre, 1st March 2018
OK. Sometimes you just have to accept that an artistic endeavour is a bit beyond your reach. For whatever reason it just doesn’t click. That is what happened here with Smile Upon Us, Lord. There was much to enjoy visually, there was the bones of an interesting story and there was the rare opportunity to see some of Russia’s finest stage actors perform. But there just wasn’t enough there for me to really engage with so ultimately I was unmoved. Not indifferent. Just unable to fully grasp what I was being shown. No matter.
Turning up to productions at the Barbican performed by renowned theatre companies from around the world, the Netherlands (Toneelgroep Amsterdam), Australia (Malthouse), Germany (Schaubhne Berlin), Japan (Ninagawa), has proved a profitable strategy recently. The Vaktangov State Academic Theatre of Russia was hugely acclaimed last time they popped over to perform an adaption of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and, prior to that, an unconstrained Uncle Vanya. Well maybe not popped over given the huge ensemble and tons of kit that comes with them. Anyway I missed both of these because a) I am an idiot and b) it all sounded a bit intimidating. Armed with greater knowledge, more time and a new-found enthusiasm for all things theatrical I wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice/thrice. The house was packed with a welcome contingent of Russian speakers, Russophiles and students of Russian culture, and, maybe, expat Lithuanians as well.
For, as it happens SUUL is actually based on two novels, A Kid for Two Farthings and Smile to Us, O Lord by the pre-eminent Lithuanian writer Grigory Yaakov Kanovich. He was born into a traditional Jewish family in Lithuania. escaped with his parents in WWII seeking refuge in Kazakhstan then Russia, before returning to Vilnius. He has written more than ten novels which document the history of Jewry in Eastern Europe from the C19 through to the present day., as well as stage works and screenplays. He has been awarded numerous prizes, medals and prestigious awards in Lithuania and he now lives in Israel.
Now as it happens the Artistic Director of VSATR is also Lithuanian, Rimas Tuminas. The germination of SULL began in the 1990s with a plan to shoot a film. Presumably the theatrical potential was recognised as certain of the story lines were drawn out and as Mr Tuminas and his creative team worked with his Russian cast to create what we now see. The story starts in a shtetl, “small town” in Yiddish, a part urban, part rural Jewish community which was largely wiped out by the Holocaust. Efraim Dudak, an irascible stone-cutter played by Sergey Makovetskiy on the night I saw it, receives a letter informing his son is to be tried and potentially executed for an attempted political assassination in Vilnius. He resolves to go to see him leaving behind his beloved she-goat played by Yulia Rutberg (yep, that’s right, she played the goat like a slow-waltzing Miss Havisham). He is joined by water-carrier Smule-Sender Lazarek, (Evgeny Knyazev), and eccentric depressive Avner Rosenthal, played by Viktor Sukhorukov, (the pick of the seasoned cast), who has been reduced to penury after his shop burned down. The journey is hazardous, there are wolves, bandits and soldiers, and unpredictable and they meet a fair few rum characters along the way, including a “blind” con-man (Victor Dobronrarov) and an enigmatic “Palestinian” Grigory Antipenko
A kind of jaunty Beckettian road-trip if you will. Without maintained roads, and just a horse and cart, conjured up in a hugely imaginative way by designer Adomas Jacovskis. Now early C20 Jewish life in Lithuania is, it will come as no surprise, a world that is unfamiliar to me, and it was intriguing to see this conjured up on stage. This was overlain with a lyrical, poetic story with much philosophical musing from our heroes. There is humour tinged with despair, magic and banality. It is meandering, discursive and there is not much in the way of plot. Some of this connects, some of it, frankly, does not, there may well have been allusions that went right over my head, but there is just about enough impetus to keep the whole thing trundling on, much like the cart.
Am I glad I saw it? I think so. Would I see it again? I’m not sure. Did I really understand it? No. Is it worth getting wound up about it? Certainly not. Life is too short for low-level regret.