Russia’s prestigious Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre returns to London with Smile Upon Us, Lord, an adaptation of two books by the Jewish Lithuanian writer Grigory Kanovich. It’s a surreal, poetic and mesmeric piece, steeped in melancholy for a world that would soon be erased.
Efraim (Vladimir Simonov) is obliged to leave his shtetl – and his favourite goat – behind and travel to Vilnius. He piles his possessions into a cart and embarks on a long and dreamlike journey. Along the way he encounters many people – gypsies, rabbis, a blind man – though he never seems to make much in the way of progress.
There are definite nods to Beckett in the way the piece is structured, as well as an evocation of the plight of the Jews throughout history. After each encounter, a handful of oats is thrown in the air, the lights blaze and the journey begins again.
Rimas Tuminas’ production is a darker, statelier piece than the company’s ravishing Eugene Onegin , seen in London in 2015. The production has a visual richness – the construction of a horse and cart out a collection of wardrobes, dressers and suitcases is a highlight in an impeccably choreographed piece. The performances are wonderfully physical too. Yulia Rutberg makes a beautifully expressive she-goat (the only female presence on stage for any length of time) and there’s eloquent clowning from Viktor Sukhorukov, as the tsuris-beset Avner Rosenthal.
While there’s humour here, the knowledge of what the road holds for these characters, for all European Jews, is ever present, like a shadow, and the last scene, a brutal sweeping away, is incredibly affecting and horrific in its efficiency.