Yentl review – Australian theatre is so rarely this complex, or this moving

<span>Amy Hack as Yentl/Anshl and Evelyn Krape as the yeytser ho’re, ‘a character not found in Singer’s original, and yet it feels totally requisite, a superb theatrical coup’.</span><span>Photograph: Jeff Busby/The Guardian</span>
Amy Hack as Yentl/Anshl and Evelyn Krape as the yeytser ho’re, ‘a character not found in Singer’s original, and yet it feels totally requisite, a superb theatrical coup’.Photograph: Jeff Busby/The Guardian

Theatre is ritual; its purpose is transformation. It seems appropriate, then, that a stage adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story Yentl the Yeshiva Boy should fold in themes of metamorphosis, transfiguration and the challenge of gender binaries. That Kadimah Yiddish Theatre can also shape it into a plea for trans identity – impassioned and persuasive, rooted in theology – feels more significant.

Singer’s story of a girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to study the Torah has become indelibly associated with Barbra Streisand, who adapted it herself for the 1983 musical film. It isn’t hard to see what it was about the source material that appealed to the star: a fiercely feminist tale, it celebrates a woman’s right to self-determinism in an aggressively male world. But this new version, doctrinally astute and surreptitiously contemporary, takes it a step further: Yentl doesn’t just subvert gender expectations here, she transcends them.

Yentl (Amy Hack) is a young woman desperate for knowledge, the kind forbidden to her by the strictures of her society. Her father indulges this need by studying the Torah with her behind closed doors, although he’s less enthusiastic about her tendency to dress in his clothes, to smoke his pipe. He knows “there is a strange power in clothing”, after all. When he dies, Yentl decides to fully embrace her masculine identity, leaving her home town and transforming into Anshl, a young scholar.

In this new guise, he befriends Avigdor (Nicholas Jaquinot), an intense and melancholic young man with a painful backstory. Once engaged to the beautiful and ardent Hodes (Genevieve Kingsford), Avigdor was cast out due to questions of family character. Still madly in love with her, he nevertheless encourages Anshl to marry her instead. Better she be betrothed to a good and trusted friend than a stranger.

Hodes finds herself attracted to this newcomer. His skin is so soft and he doesn’t smell like the other boys she knows. If he refuses to bathe in front of others, and seems reluctant to kiss her, so what? Love can grow, and the ways of men are mysterious. Anshl reluctantly agrees to the match, as much to keep Avigdor close – with whom he’s fallen in love – as to cement his disguise in the community. It is a love triangle sustained by a lie, and cannot come to good.

Around and within this parabolic tale is woven a strange and subversive figure, the yeytser ho’re (Evelyn Krape). Names are important (although Avigdor claims that “names mean nothing”) and in Hebrew this one can be interpreted as the evil inclination, the urge to disrupt or impede the better angels of our nature. Krape is therefore a kind of mistress of chaos, willing Yentl/Anshl on to further and further deceptions, even as she nudges them towards a self-realisation of great power. She’s also hilarious, each giggle and squawk calibrated to maximum effect. It’s a character not found in Singer’s original, and yet it feels totally requisite, a superb theatrical coup.

Director Gary Abrahams, who also co-wrote the adaptation with Elise Esther Hearst and Galit Klas, corrals the story’s wild diversions with clarity and a masterful control of tone and pace. There’s something of the music hall about the production, a vaudevillian expressionism that can be seen in the white faces and ruddy cheeks on the cast – not to mention Krape’s devilish interpolations puncturing the action like cymbal clashes. But there’s also an admirable psychological realism, a dedication to emotional truth under the heightened playing style.

Dann Barber’s set, a spookily evocative eastern European shtetl, is simple but brilliantly realised, and Rachel Burke’s lighting is dreamlike and otherworldly. This is a world steeped in traditions and ancient teachings, but also surreal and Kabbalistic, and the playing space feels both rooted in history and strangely illusory.

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Essentially a remount of a production from 2022, Yentl has only one cast change, but it’s the key one. If she isn’t as dazzling as Jana Zvedeniuk was in the eponymous role, Hack brings a palpable fervour and sense of dignity to the role, milking the comedy where she can but also fully committing to the central dilemma. Jaquinot returns more convincingly mercurial and tortured, and Kingsford is again excellent as the compromised Hodes. Krape transfixes as the spirit of pandemonium, her vast chunks of Yiddish bouncing melodically around the auditorium, her impishness driving the action forward. It’s a great reminder of this actor’s unique gifts.

Yentl returns at a difficult time, but somehow this makes it feel more necessary, more germane. Religious thought so easily becomes intractable, but this production – with the sheer beauty of its spoken Yiddish, its deep and respectful grappling with ideology, the primacy it places on trans identity – points to an alternate view. It imagines religion not just existing alongside cultural progress but as a catalyst for it.

Theatre in this country is so rarely animated by ideas this complex and contested, and rarely this moving. Like a meaningful ritual, it’s bracing and transformative.