THE taste of exotic fruit and the secret wisdom of the cabala are equal mysteries to a little boy growing up in the cobbled streets of early 20th century Warsaw. There, an adventure was a lift on a kindly dairyman’s wagon or a stroll into the blossom-strewn fields outside the city.
There, a ruble could buy you a stomach ache’s worth of sweets and a guilty conscience; girls strung gleaming beads into necklaces; and ancient washerwomen scaled flights of stairs with laundry bundles balanced impossibly on their narrow shoulders, like ants hoisting home a morsel 50 times their body weight.
It is this – long-lost but impeccably resurrected – world that Nobel Prize-winning novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer recalled in his childhood tales, A Day of Pleasure, and which Liverpool Everyman founder member Stuart Richman, 70, has turned into a one-man stage play.
The actor first came across the collection of short stories in a bundle of books he had bought at auction. He picked it up off the shelf where it had sat for several months, intending to pass it to his grandson, but quickly realised it was the bones of a theatre piece.
“I just found it very, very moving,” he says.
“It’s simply a picture of a world that has disappeared, not all because of the Holocaust when a vast proportion of Yiddish culture was wiped out, but also because time has passed and life has changed.”
Richman plays Bashevis Singer, the son of a rabbi, sitting dressing-gowned in his book-filled flat, sharing memories of his childhood with the audience.
Five stories from the book are interspersed with dialogue largely taken from the novelist’s own mouth, a lot of it recorded by his secretary.
Apart from two private performances, the run at the Liverpool Playhouse Studio will be its premiere. Richman, who has worked with director Neil Sissons on realising the play, is also planning a spring tour and hopes to take it on to the Edinburgh Festival and a festival of British theatre in New York.
It was to that city of dreams that Bashevis Singer fled in 1935, troubled by the rise of Nazism in nearby Germany, leaving behind his common-in-law wife, Runia Pontsch, and five-year-old son, Israel Zamir.
Richman paints the scene: “That part of Warsaw was full of young people who were writing, creating theatre, discussing Zionism and socialism.”
Around that time, the Polish government began clamping down on enemies of the regime. As a follower of communism, Runia was imprisoned and Bashevis Singer also spent time in jail.
“He was deeply ashamed. That would affect his own desire to go to the United States,” says Richman.
“When he emigrated, she went to live in Soviet Russia because she was one of those red flag wavers who thought that was the future. They believed in all those sugary fairytales about the communist revolution.”
In America, Bashevis Singer lived a life of penury, supported by his elder brother. Eventually, he became established as a writer, a leading figure in the Yiddish literary movement who went on to win the 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature and two National Book Awards, including one for A Day of Pleasure.
“There were all sorts of people who were prepared to serve him as it were, all sorts of women with whom he had affairs,” reveals Richman.
“He wasn’t an attractive-looking man but he claimed people fell in love with what he had to say. And he was a tremendous flirt.”
Meanwhile, his son was growing up thousands of miles away in Palestine, where he and Runia settled after life in Russia became unbearable, their only contact through letters.
In his mid-20s, Israel visited New York to find his father but Bashevis Singer’s response was unwelcoming.
“The son writes about his father ignoring him, not even giving him any money so he had to find work as a lorry driver just to get by,” says Richman.
“Bashevis Singer himself said he never really wanted children. It got in the way of his writing. He was very selfish in all kinds of ways.”
Richman feels a personal connection with A Day of Pleasure because of his own family background. Both sets of his grandparents were part of the wave of Jewish people fleeing Eastern Europe as the dark shadow of persecution swept the continent. They intended to travel to the US but were forced to settle in London.
“My Russian (paternal) grandparents came from a village in the Ukraine which the Nazis completely destroyed,” he reveals.
“My mother’s father came from Poland and he was actually conscripted into the Polish Cossacks.
“My father’s mother actually did work as a washerwoman in the east end of London during the period that her cobbler husband had gone to the States and got caught up in the First World War.
“He couldn’t come back and they were totally impoverished.”
Richman remembers being taken to the cinema as a seven-year-old in immediate post-war London, and experiencing his first glimpse of the fate that could have befallen his family.
“I saw the first images of the Holocaust, the skeletons and piles of rotting bodies, and I think it’s really that which has dictated my choice of stories from A Day of Pleasure.”
A DAY of Pleasure is at the Liverpool Playhouse Studio from October 4-6.
Liverpool Post, October 10, 2012