A Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival event held as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival is an example of what the many small festivals can bring to the city's big events.
The tremendous depth of Jewish writing is evidenced by the disproportionate number of Jewish writers who have won the Nobel Prizes for Literature – 14 winners of 113 from a group that comprises around 0.2% of the world’s population.
To share some of these writers, the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival created Theatrics: The Wit and Wisdom of Jewish Writing, a staged reading of excerpts from 10 Jewish authors directed by Gary Abrahams and performed by Deidre Rubenstein, Michael Veitch, Luisa Hastings Edge and Christopher Brown.
The strength of this piece was in the quality of writing and the excellent balance of the selections. From the pugnacious humour of Howard Jacobson’s non-barmitzvah to the compassionate poetry of Arnold Zable's homage to an Iraqui asylum seeker; from the shtetl of Isaac Bashevis Singer to the post-feminist mothering of Ayelet Waldman’s New York, these selections showcase the capacity of great story-tellers to capture emotional moments without sentimentality.
A surprise pleasure was Maria Tumarkin’s challenging short story The Nazi, commissioned especially for the event which explored the paranoia and existential moral panic which lives in the collective memory of a persecuted people. It has shades of Nathan Englander’s much-praised story We have to talk about Anne Frank.
And speaking of Englander, it was a masterstroke to end the evening with his wonderful homage to the act of reading, a perfect amen to an evening of readings.
The four actors who presented the works read well but they had only five days in rehearsal and it showed. The problem was not in the occasional stumble, it was in the lack of development of distinctive voices. Hasting’s Polish peasant girl from The Slave and her defiant modern woman from Waldman’s controversial Bad Mother sounded almost indistinguishable. Brown did better – he was impressive in his ability to age for The Reader – but somehow he never quite stopped being the cocky young Jacobson he was in the first reading. Rubenstein was helped by having characters who sat easily together but Veitch never quite inhabited anybody.
Naming this event Theatrics was a mistake. It was a reading rather than a dramatisation that promised a little more than it delivered.
But it provided an almost entirely home audience with a very satisfying evening of reading and with such a wealth of material it would be good to see another one – preferably with more time allowed for the actors to develop their readings.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Alex Theatre, Melbourne
Melbourne Writers Festival