David Schnieder’s new play Making Stalin Laugh retells the story of the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre. It chronicles the history of the impassioned company that continued to create exceptional theatre in spite of Stalin’s oppressive regime.
Set in the theatre, the action switches between on stage and backstage. We are first introduced to Solomon Mikhoels, played with magnificent magnetism by Darrell D’Silva, bathed in a spotlight as he addresses the audience. The enigmatic Mikhoels was the heart of the company and the most celebrated Yiddish actor of his time, Schneider depicts him with both light and shade.
The first act sets up the relationships of the well cast characters, all of which are connected by their mutual love, awe, admiration, jealousy and camaraderie of Solomon. In Mikheols leadership of his troop it is hard not to draw a parallel to Stalin. Schnieder conveys the essence of a theatre company with not only accuracy but wit, whilst maintaining a slow undercurrent of ominous inevitability.
Director Matthew Lloyd incites an eerie sense of foreboding when a beautifully backlit Benjamin Zuskin (James Holmes), recites a stirring speech from King Lear. As the superior second act races to an emotional and heart wrenching conclusion, Solomon repeats the line “We have to carry on. It’s the work that counts.” The distracting scene changes can be forgiven because it is in this spirit of survival that the play excels, as a celebration of theatre, Judaism and Yiddish.
Making Stalin Laugh successfully encapsulates the tenor of fear, murder and subjugation of its time and achieves balance in the scattering of Schnieder’s well placed but not overpowering humour making this a truly powerful and significant play.