This musical about two Romanian Jews seeking refuge in Canada is a Sydney Festival highlight
Can you capture the complexity of political refuge, the trauma of pogroms and the fragility of new love and new hope in a difficult – though peaceful – new world in 80 minutes?
You can if you are Canadian folk musician Ben Caplan and playwright Hannah Moscovitch.
Old Stock, a folk and klezmer-driven musical that quite literally spills out of a shipping container onto the stage, is a small team harnessing an enormous force.
Chaim (Dani Oore) and Chaya (Mary Fay Coady) meet in a processing line, freshly arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia after fleeing Romania. Chaya’s family fled persecution early, winding through Russia and suffering for it. Chaim left later, after a pogrom in his village. The trauma they have each suffered is unconscionable, yet as they stand in a line, stateless and uprooted, life continues to happen: Chaim falls for Chaya.
Their marriage and romance are not quite romantic, their union complicated by Chaya’s grief for the husband she lost in Russia and Chaim’s skittish behaviour, but there’s something much bigger at play here. Their approach to their sorrows have altered their outlooks in entirely different ways: Chaya can look back on the good times and compare them to her unsatisfying present; Chaim can only look forward, his past life obliterated.
Still, you can’t help but search their faces, and their story, for a glimmer of hope. Will Chaya and Chaim ever be happy?
Well Moscovitch is a descendant of the real-life Chaya and Chaim, so you know at least something tangible as a family legacy is going to come from their pain.
Narrated by Caplan – part troubadour, part spiritual guide and maybe the voice of God – this musical meditation on history, refuge and the delicate but enduring capacity of human feeling is enchanting. This is a small production, embellished only with two musicians – Caplan, Coady and Oore play much of the music themselves – but bigger than the sum of its parts.
Caplan’s lyrics are clever, swiftly weaving humour and pathos with political provocations; he has the voice of a folk hero and kind of open, warm face you can’t help but instantly like. He deviates from the love story into musings on the bible’s unwritten laws (they’re a lot more descriptive and modern than you might expect), sex and the Talmud, and devastating ballads of loss and life. Oore's eagerness proves an excellent counter to Coady’s reserve, and her wry line readings are an unexpected delight. This is a company that works beautifully together.
Christian Barry has directed this production to be timeless – its contemporary vernacular and conversational style helps keeps us in the present, and in our own location. Old Stock serves as a reminder that those who flee to new lands in precarious ways to seek safety are whole and real people, not opportunistic monsters.
We should be well beyond needing such a reminder, but as a nation with a Prime Minister who has a trophy for turning back refugees proudly displayed in his office, we are not. The slyly urgent element of Old Stock that castigates borders and reminds us that being born in a particular place does not make us more deserving of freedom and safety than others is no more powerful than the true story of Chaya and Chaim, but it’s the part that, hopefully, will remain front of mind.