Making Stalin Laugh at JW3, London
New theatre is difficult and expensive. Given that, it’s a great credit to JW3 that they followed their successful verbatim drama Listen We’re Family with a newly commissioned play that refuses to take the easy routes of comedy or sentiment. The result – Making Stalin Laugh by David Schneider – is impressive in a number of ways: it’s an original work rather than an adaptation, it’s by a British Jewish writer and it avoids the obvious topics of the holocaust and Israel. Instead it takes as its focus the history of the Moscow State Jewish Theatre – known as GOSET, and it’s charismatic artistic director Solomon Mikhoels. Founded in the wake of the Russian revolution, GOSET was one of the crown jewels of the USSR’s Yiddish culture programme, towards which the Soviet state’s attitude veered between enthusiastic support and fearful censorship. GOSET’s international fame and popularity provided helpful propaganda for the soviet union, allowing the company the space to produce works which reinterpreted Yiddish novels and Jewish historical epics to give them a socialist focus, as it desperately attempted to keep up with the changing ideological demands of party apparatchiks. Despite it’s many successes, including an acclaimed Yiddish King Lear in 1935, the company was shut down by Stalin in 1949, as part of his purge against Jewish intellectuals and leaders, with Mikhoels murdered and his death framed as a car accident.
Schneider, who studied for a PHD in Yiddish at Oxford, is well qualified to tell GOSET’s story, and in Making Stalin Laugh he seems to see at least half his task as simply teaching the audience about a historical moment which they are likely to know almost nothing about. While this is a laudable aim, it leads to some dramatic problems in an energetic production of a work that is a couple more drafts from being a really excellent play. The need to fill in a great deal of background leads to clunky expository dialogue in the early scenes and the desire to tell the story in full probably explains the biggest dramatic problem – the decision to depict a thirty year time period rather than picking a couple of moments to illustrate GOSET’s work and personalities. The result is a large amount of short fragmented scenes – with what could have been major dramatic moments – such as Mikhoels meeting with Stalin and amusing him with a comic routine – happening off stage. Despite these issues, Making Stalin Laugh is a dramatic success, and contains a great deal to enjoy. The second act in particular has moments of real power – a series of confrontations between Mikhoels and his fellow actors – with the young ideologue who Mikhoels despises but who has in fact managed to keep the company alive due to his political machinations, and with the eternally loyal Zuskin who finally releases out decades of suppressed rage against his bullying colleage whom he still loves. Sandy McDade puts in an extremely strong performance as Nina who is desperately loyal to Mikhoels but ultimately betrays him, and Darrell D’Silva is compelling as the flawed but likeable director. Matthew Lloyd’s production successfully evokes the faded grandeur of Moscow theatres and rehearsal rooms – no small feat in JW3’s all purpose black box auditorium. Making Stalin Laugh is a fascinating, rich and mostly compelling play – it deserves a second production, and an opportunity for Schneider to tighten up the script. Kol Hakavod to JW3 for producing work of this ambition – we can only hope it will offer a permanent home for cutting edge Jewish theatre in a way that ultimately GOSET could not.