Theatre review: Yentl, Malthouse Theatre

'Yentl' returns after two years in a new venue and with a new lead performer.

What does it mean to be modern in an age where the price of modernity is to be feared as well as loved? This question is at the heart of Kadimah Theatre’s original translation of Yentl, which shows the complexities of pursuing what one needs at the expense of traditions dictating the way things have always been done. 

This concept of needs and desires that can become destructive are what’s called yeytser ho’re, a Yiddish term from an endangered language in which Yentl is performed. In this play, the titular character Yentl’s need to study and her willingness to pass as a man in order to gain access to the world of study, is her yeytser ho’re (in the program notes director Gary Abrahams translates the term thus: ‘in layman’s terms it refers to one’s evil or destructive inclinations’).

It will end up costing her and those around her their relationships with each other. This story is the tragedy of modernity so eloquently told by Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story – to need too much to be modern is to leave the ties of tradition behind. 

This production of Yentl, which first appeared at Arts Centre Melbourne at the beginning of 2022, features many of the same elements that made the original performance a winner. The excellent set design by Dann Barber foregrounds warm spotlights and a ladder that alludes to Jacob’s quest to get ever closer to heaven, a straight path that contrasts with Yentl’s need to be modern.

The sound design by Russell Goldsmith adds nuance as well as suspense to a story that twists and turns in its pursuit of identity and its devotion to memory of family and tradition, as well as to the future of love. 

The direction produces an assured and crisp delivery. Kadimah’s Artistic Director Evelyn Krape and Director Gary Abrahams (who also shares writing credits with Elise Esther Hearst and Galit Klas) bring the richness of some of the country’s most versatile talents to the telling of this dark story about a girl driven by the pursuit of knowledge to dress as a boy, and who falls in love, only to leave her loved ones behind. It is a credit to the entire production team, including Assistant Director Virginia Proud, that the story fulfils its comedic and tragic moments in equal measure, producing a play with the bittersweetness of a hamantaschen cookie, a Jewish pastry. 

It is in the acting that this production really shines, in a genuine ensemble show that is rich enough for each of its performers to feel like the lead. Krape brings an ambiguous liveliness to her role as narrator, where she is part trickster and part soulful carrier of a history as sad as it can be sweet. Nicholas Jaquinot is convincing as Avigdor, the study partner Yentl acquires when she dresses as a boy, Anshl, and goes to study the Torah. 

Jaquinot manages to make the romantic and career dilemmas of a Yiddish-speaking boy in a small European village seem modern, as well as funny and lively. Genevieve Kingsford is delicate and wondrous as Hodes, the former love of Avigdor who finds herself falling in love with Yentl’s male alter-ego Anshl, and is convincing enough that we believe Yentl/Anshl when he/she falls in love with her in return. 

Finally, Amy Hack, who is the only actor different from the original Arts Centre line-up, plays Yentl/Anshl with a compelling sense of need, or yeyster ho’re, for the knowledge of books, but also the knowledge of love. The audience is swept up in these performances with a story that is as modern as a Shakespearean comedy of gender-play and trickery can be, but distinctly Yiddish as an Eastern European folk tale encountered in a Marc Chagall painting. 

Read: Theatre review: Grand Theft Theatre, Adelaide Festival

It is the writing by Hearst, Klas and Abrahams that makes this production seem compelling and an important reminder that modernity is built by individuals who are sometimes feared as well as loved for being ahead of their time.

Malthouse Theatre, Sturt Street, Melbourne

Writers: Gary Abrahams, Elise Esther Hearst, Galit Klas
Director: Gary Abraham
Assistant Director; Virginia Proud
Sound Designer: Russell Goldsmith
Set and Costume Designer: Dann Barber
Lighting Designer: Rachel Burke
Subtitle Operator: Josh Reuben

Translator: Rebecca (Rivke) Margolis
Stage Manager: Harry Dowling

Assistant Stage Manger: Rosemary Osmond
Cast: Evelyn Krape, Amy Hack, Nicholas Jaquinot, Genevieve Kingsford

Yentl will be performed until 17 March 2024.

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin