Theatre review: Making Stalin Laugh at JW3

cast of Making Stalin Laugh

cast of Making Stalin Laugh - Credit: Archant

Reviewers like to believe we have power of influence, but those in Stalinist Russia had power of life and death: a bad write-up spelled doom for the subject. Yet their opinions could not contradict those of the ‘great leader’ and he had a worrying tendency to change his mind.

David Schneider’s riveting new play tells the tale of the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre, which, while battling for survival during the horrifying arbitrariness of Stalin’s purges, actually thrived creatively. It was lauded around the world, with Shostakovich calling Solomon Mikhoels’ Lear the best he’d ever seen.

But with that high profile and lavish state support comes enormous risk, backstage squabbles competing with an ever-present threat of annihilation.

Keeping it at bay is Darrell D’Silva’s dynamic impresario Mikhoels, a raging mass of contradictions: philanderer and fatherly leader; visionary and petty egotist; at once cruel, charismatic, domineering and courageous.

Quietly tragic

He has a weakness for buxom ingénues, one of whom (Holly Augustine) is married to his best friend, sozzled luvvie Zuskin (James Holmes). Sparring partner Nina (strong Sandy McDade) tempers her own talent to avoid stealing his spotlight – an admission that carries quietly tragic weight.

Russell Bentley is excellent as a series of Kafkaesque bureaucrats, conveying menace beneath their tiresome demands, while Party informer Isaac (compelling Jonah Russell) justifies his actions by arguing that the dissolution of national boundaries in a communist utopia means the end of anti-Semitic persecution.

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Schneider’s witty, incisive script throws up fascinating ideas, though some get short shrift in this epic sweep, not helped by Matthew Lloyd’s plodding production, which reflects none of the Expressionist company’s avant-garde approach.

Yet this is a rich story with surprising resonance: not just the inspiration of artists using restriction as a catalyst for innovation, but people holding onto their humanity and defending their culture in the darkest of times.

Rating: Four stars

Until July 9.