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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

Yentl (Kadimah Yiddish Theatre), at Merlyn Theatre, at Malthouse Theatre - 2 hours 5 minutes, plus a 20-minute interval

Updated: Mar 4

We are in Poland in 1870. Yentl (Amy Hack) is driven by her desire to study … to learn and understand.


Her father teaches at the local Yeshiva (a traditional Jewish educational institution focused on the study of Rabbinic literature).

 

Being a girl, she is not allowed to attend the Yeshiva, nor to study the Torah (the Hebrew Bible).

Photos by Jeff Busby


So, she does so in secret … behind closed doors, often wearing her father’s clothes (her mother died during childbirth), even smoking his pipe.

 

He knows and while he doesn’t overtly countenance Yentl’s endeavours, neither does he ignore her pleas.

 

In short, he gives in and begins to teach her one-on-one.

 

After his health deteriorates and he passes away, Yentl “transforms” herself into a man.

 

She wraps a tight bandage around her breasts, again dons her father’s clothes, including his prayer shawl, and travels to parts previously unknown.

There she enters a religious male society, with its distinctive smells, assumes the name Anshl and befriends Avigdor (Nicholas Jaquinot).

 

Anshl expresses a desire to study in a small Yeshiva and Avigdor suggests that “he” join him at his.

 

And so it comes to pass, with Anshl becoming Avigdor’s study partner and best friend.

 

Anshl learns about twin tragedies in Avigdor’s life – his brother’s death and the “uncoupling” of his engagement to the girl he loves, named Hodes (Genevieve Kingsford).

 

As a fine student, Anshl is invited by Hodes’ father to eat and study in the company of his family, attended to by Hodes. Anshl and Hodes grow close.

Meanwhile, Avigdor – who is still in love with Hodes – insists on regular “debriefs” from Anshl after he has seen Hodes.

 

Anshl continues to live a lie, but while loving both Avigdor and Hodes, dark forces are circling, ones that threaten to expose and shatter Anshl’s idyll.

 

Mysticism, spirituality and Yiddish culture are the keys to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s original short story, upon which Yentl the play is based.

 

Writers Gary Abrahams (who also directs the work), Elise Esther Hearst and Galit Klas have taken the force of Singer’s tale and turned it into compelling theatre.

 

Told in English and Yiddish (with English surtitles), Yentl is a mighty production in all respects, driven by bravura performances.

Throughout their endeavours, Yentl/Anshl is egged on by a malevolent force, known as a dybbuk.

 

With a disquieting cackle, Evelyn Krape assumes that ever present character with distinction.

 

She is at one with the “muck raker”, who “drives” Yentl’s/Anshl’s journey, revelling in its trajectory.

 

Amy Hack is equally extraordinary as the always anxious central player.

 

Yentl’s heart may be in the right place, but she becomes mired in the subterfuge that takes over her life and threatens the wellbeing of those closest to her.

Hack convincingly channels the tortuous dichotomy at the centre of the story, such that we – the audience – care deeply.

 

Integral to that endeavour is Nicholas Jaquinot’s sterling endeavour as the shattered soul given new hope by Anshl.

 

His Avigdor is deeply human, troubled and yearning.

 

Genevieve Kingsford keeps it real as the pure, naïve soul that is Hodes, who – in keeping with Jewish tradition – would like to marry a worthy man, settle down and have a large family.

 

Hodes has every reason to believe that in Anshl she has finally found “the one”, but as time passes her frustrations grow.

 

Hack’s realisation of Hodes ensures that we feel for her, as much as we do for Avigdor and Yentl.

Helping to bring the story to life is Dann Barber’s earthy set design (he is also responsible for costuming).

 

A tall ladder puts Yentl within touching distance of the Yeshiva. Rocks and tufts of grass complete the picture.

 

The soundscape by Russell Goldsmith and lighting by Rachel Burke are integral in setting and changing the mood … in creating the air of foreboding central to Yentl.

 

The moral quandary, not to overlook the androgynous nature of the lead, that underpin the piece give it real bite.

 

Truly triumphant, this glorious realisation of Yentl is playing at Merlyn Theatre, at Malthouse Theatre until 17th March, 2024.

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