I had a gift voucher to use for the Arts Centre which was close to expiry date (last year was not a good year healthwise for booking anything in advance) and when I saw Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story advertised with a session offering Q & A with the cast afterwards, I knew this was the perfect fit for my voucher – and which of my friends I’d invite to share the experience.
My friend Lisa, grew up in Caulfield and developed long-standing friendships and a special affinity with Jewish culture. She also loves plays as a form of storytelling, as much as I do.
We both attended The Script Club at The Channel, a studio in the Victorian Arts Centre a couple of years ago, where we discussed classic Australian plays in a series of workshops facilitated by respected writer and drama critic, John McCallum.
What better play for us to see together than one advertised as –
A dark, funny and high-energy klezmer-folk tale inspired by the real-life story of two Romanian Jews seeking refuge in Canada in 1908.
It’s early 20th century Halifax and Chaim and Chaya, hounded from home, are waiting for immigration to decide their future, under threat of tuberculosis and typhus. Will they survive in this new land?
With neo-klezmer songs written by director Christian Barry and acclaimed genre-bending performer and musician Ben Caplan, this quirky one-act musical is written by award-winning playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who based it on the story of her own Jewish great-grandparents.
This bewitching music-theatre hybrid and cautionary tale for modern times – performed with instruments ranging from fiddle to clarinet, accordion, banjo and megaphone – was nominated for six Drama Desk Awards, won multiple Edinburgh Fringe awards and was a New York Times Critic’s Pick.
Old Stock is about humanity and finding your place in the world. Above all this story is about hope.
The refugee crisis is a topic rarely out of the news, especially in Australia, where we have asylum seekers languishing on offshore islands under indefinite detention and any discussion we have in the media or parliament soon descends into blame, shame, distortion of facts and fear of the other.
Ironically, this week one of the most well-known asylum seekers incarcerated on Manus Island for six years has been awarded the richest literature prize in Australia, plus a smaller non-fiction prize – a total of $125,000 – and sparking a bitter debate about the what and who is “ Australian”.
Everyone should listen carefully to the acceptance speech, via video, of Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian Kurdish refugee because it is about being human, not labelling yourself as a particular nationality, religion, or ethnic group.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story definitely topical!!
Whose interest is served by dividing the world into countries, building walls, increasing security and border checks, incarcerating those fleeing violence and natural disasters, stirring up resentment and hate, attaching ridiculous and misleading labels?
Most people, if given the choice would stay put, live in their own country and prefer peace – that is the reality.
It is catastrophic events like war, civil disturbances, attempted genocide, mass inequality and natural disasters that cause refugees, like the current caravan fleeing multiple crises in Central America.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, like the novel No Friend But The Mountains challenge us to humanise these tragic circumstances and are great examples of what Ursula Le Guin believed,
“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”
The Power of Stagecraft
Louisa Adamson & Christian Barry were responsible for set and lighting design but stagecraft also includes technical aspects of theatrical production like sound, costume design and makeup.
All are important to set the scene for the audience but also enable the cast to perform smoothly.
These technical and artistic elements require a vision and interpretation that suits the theme/story and also gives the audience an enjoyable and entertaining experience.
In the foyer of the theatre, there were displays of costumes and models of sets emphasising these very points. Lisa mentioned how much she had enjoyed The King and I and we observed various people posing for photographs on a mock-up of the set for Evita fancying themselves as Eva Perón!
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story went for 80 minutes without a break providing a challenge that a conventional drama with an interval might not and considering the subject matter and the set, I don’t think many will queue to have their photograph taken.
The lighting always important on stage but for this performance exceptionally so, to focus on a particular performer and distract the audience if props were being moved and others in the cast changed costumes or positions.
The Fairfax Theatre at the Arts Centre is comfortable and intimate and we had seats in the second row so had a great view of the performers and the set, which when we first sat down looked like a shipping container.
Ben Caplan in a bushy beard, top hat and a purplish jacket is spectacular and loud, almost raunchy when he appears like a magician amid smoke and flashing lights from the top of the container.
The intro routine opens two large, swinging doors displaying various musical instruments, hats, shawl and other accoutrements on hooks and shelves but Ben sings with gusto and he’s telling the story through his songs, which requires our concentration.
While he captured our attention, the other cast members set up the remaining props and hung the Halifax sign. The compactness and portability of the design clever, and although colourful, never became a distraction from the words and music.
A simple packing case and upended suitcases interchangeable as the characters journey through life and tell their story – which involves settling in Montreal (another sign up) getting married and starting a family.
Ben acknowledged Louise in the Q & A afterwards for the set’s strong visual metaphor. Most refugees have to travel by ship at some stage in their journey (certainly the ones in this story) and it also references World War Two refugees herded into freight train carriages.
I wondered if the white-haired gentleman, who asked the question about the set had memories of his family escaping the Holocaust like Denise Weiss, one of my students who wrote a hauntingly beautiful but sad vignette about her Jewish parents escaping Hungary – a train journey her grandmother and others took that ended in the gas chamber.
Although it is based on the historical upheavals and forced journeys the Jewish people have experienced, the story and characters are an allegory, representing humanity, and all people forced from their home because of war, prejudice, fear, natural disaster, or a desire to improve the lives of their children.
What Influenced/Inspired The Play?
Ben explained, that in 2015 during the Canadian election, he was watching Canada’s Prime Minister give a speech where he referred to ‘Old Stock’ Canadians to distinguish them from recently arrived immigrants and refugees.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s use this week of the term “old stock Canadians” in response to a question on support for reduced health coverage for refugees drew swift condemnation on social media, where many suggested the term has racist implications.
The newspaper article linked above has interviews with a variety of Canadians including George Elliott Clarke, Poet Laureate of Toronto. (I’m quoting him because I love poets, especially those with his ability, and who successfully show the personal is political and vice versa!)
Stock: A 7th-generation descendant of black refugees who settled in Nova Scotia in 1813, long before Confederation, Clarke also has native heritage and is a member of the Eastern Woodlands Metis Nation.
“The true ‘old-stock’ Canadians are the First Nations and Inuit and Metis, followed by the many divergent ethnicities who were also present in colonial Canada, from African slaves in muddy York to ‘German’ settlers on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, from the Chinese merchants present in Nouvelle-France to the Portuguese and Basque fishermen of Newfoundland.
“Personally, I think the current Prime Minister is unsure about his own identity and possibly nervous about the true, multicultural, multilingual, multiple-faiths and multiracial Canada that now beautifully, proudly, lives and flourishes.”
But perhaps it is a quote from Elise Harding-Davis, former curator of the North American Black Historical Museum that resonates more with what has happened to the debate in Australia – a debate that went downhill extremely fast with Prime Minister John Howard’s disgusting refusal to let the Tampa land asylum seekers and his declaration of ‘we’ll decide who comes into this country‘ plus his protegees Abbott and Morrison suggesting civilisation began with colonisation and revering Captain Cook!
Like all descendants of escaped slaves, her family was granted Canadian citizenship only in 1911. “Canada didn’t start out lily white. In fact, the only non-immigrants are the First Nations, aboriginal people… The idea of ‘Canadian stock’ is innocent ignorance. It’s a mindset of traditional thinking that all the people who started anything of note through history were the conquerors.”
The next major influence for Ben was the war in Syria and the appalling images of fleeing refugees and that shocking image of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi drowned as his family tried to escape. This tiny body, washed ashore at a popular wealthy resort in Turkey, highlighted the suffering and death of many refugees and the huge divide regarding wealth, safety, and lifestyles in the world.
On World Refugee Day 2018, a record 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced in 2017. Record high numbers of men, women and children were driven from their homes across the world due to war, violence and persecution, according to a June 2018 report by the United Nations’ refugee agency.
Playwright, Hannah Moscovitch joined Ben and Christian on the project. Although she is writing about the past and her great-grandparents, she also addresses mass migrations today and the people and countries who oppose and/or resent those migrants. She is also a playwright unafraid of making the personal political.
Singer-songwriter Ben Caplan is the story-teller/God, a performance almost Vaudevillian as he behaves like an emcee (that’s where the megaphone listed as a musical instrument comes in) and also sings, dances (one number for me recalled a scene from Fiddler On The Roof) and acts in-between introducing the various scenes where Chaim (Dani Oore) and Chaya (Mary Faye Coady) tell their story intermingled with musical interludes. (Dani plays the woodwind and Mary Faye, the violin).
This is a tragedy with comedic streaks, especially the brilliant inflexions of Chaya and Chaim’s voices delivering their lines, many with the irony and chutzpah identifiably Jewish. Mary Faye said she listened to many accents online and worked on her voice for over a year to get the accent right. (She is of Scots/Irish descent, like me.)
The rhyme and rhythm of Ben’s songs catchy (if somewhat repetitive) but one, in particular, had the audience in an uproar when he recited euphemisms for sex (some I’d heard, others bizarre) and then suggested perhaps celibacy needed ‘careful consideration’.
When he dons the shawl of a rabbi and sings as a cantor, his voice and words are haunting – I found it deeply moving, even although it wasn’t in English – the meaning and emotional impact understood.
From the reaction of the audience and the questions after the show, it is obvious many were Jewish and the choice of music and songs triggered personal memories.
One lady of Russian descent, remembered a traditional lullaby her grandmother used to sing and suggested it be included in the show to make the scene where a lullaby is sung more authentic – Ben Caplan thanked her for her input but the power of art – song, poetry, drama, music, dance – crosses all boundaries and the writer and cast want to reach the largest possible audience.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story touched me, a person without a Jewish heritage. I found it captivating, emotionally engaging, entertaining and memorable with, I suggest, enough authenticity to satisfy most of the Jewish people present but not isolate Gentiles.
The story is about Jewish refugees Chaim and Chaya meeting in the line at the Immigration Centre in 1908 Halifax, Canada. They are both new arrivals from Romania, both traumatised from harrowing journeys but ordered into a line for the sick. He might have typhus because he has a rash. She might have caught her sister’s tuberculosis, she has a cough. He is ‘just a kid’ at eighteen years old but after seeing his family murdered in a pogrom has grown up fast. She is twenty-four, too young to be a widow but her husband and child didn’t survive the arduous journey they made across Russia to escape what Chaim lived.
Will they be allowed into Canada? Will they live long enough to establish a new life? Will they fall in love and have a future together?
The Jewish experience is dominant and when you read (warning this is very disturbing) about the rise of anti-semitic behaviour in Melbourne, this is a play with subject matter that needs as wide an audience as possible, with more Q and A’s afterwards discussing the points it raises.
What do you choose to do if someone is pounding on your door needing help – do you let them in or ignore their plight?
When are people accepted as citizens or allowed to belong and their contribution acknowledged?
The story seeks the sympathy and understanding of the audience and challenges us to confront the reality of refugees, the various reasons and circumstances forcing people to seek asylum, and the dehumanising language used by politicians, the media and bigots, the myths and misinformation, the stirring of fear when it should be compassion…
If someone is seeking help does it matter what religion, what colour, what language group, what religion they are – isn’t the fact they are desperate for help enough?
People are not numbers, not statistics, not clones – humanity is diverse.
To tell this story with shades of light and dark, fast-paced mood changes and engaging craftmanship of acting, voice, dance and music, the cast deserves hearty congratulations and lots more success as they take their show around the world.
Simone de Beauvoir once said:
“It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.“
I’m so glad I heard a little of the lives of Hannah Moscovitch’s Chaim and Chaya and will continue to advocate for our government to treat better those who come to Australia.