After seeing the powerful and uplifting production of The Good and the True, I was thrilled to be able to interview actor Saul Reichlin who portrayed athlete Milos Dobry in a superb performance. Doing a bit of research prior to the interview, I discovered that Reichlin is an actor with extensive and multifaceted experience. He worked in London for the first part of his career. Like other exceptional actors who are in the theatre for life, he has evolved his talents and career, stretching his craft to include unique roles which he himself created and for which he has won awards and nominations.
On a visit to see his mother and relatives in Capetown, South Africa he stumbled upon a book of stories by Sholem Aleichem that his mom adored and gave to relatives. Enamored, he adapted the stories, mixing his craft and talents with their beauty and wisdom. He experimented with performing them for a decade and created one-man shows which he has performed in the US, the UK and other countries in festivals and other venues. The first of these programs was Sholom Aleichem – Now You’re Talking! One that you might have seen in Manhattan recently was Roots…Shoots!
Saul portrayed Josef Mashkan in Old Wicked Songs to acclaim, another of his celebrated dramatizations of the stories of Sholem Aleichem. In total, with these works he has toured in 35 cities globally, but that is not the end of it. Reichlin is also an award winning director. And he has had roles in Caregiver, Mandela and The Prisoner File (Ch 4) among other roles during his theater and film career.
His acting journey has brought him again to the shores of the US where Sunday, September 14 he gave his last performance as Milos Dobry in The Good and the True and then sped over to the Cornelia Street Cafe to perform Roots…Shmoots!
What is The Good and the True about?
The story of The Good And The True consists of the dramatized accounts of the experiences of two Holocaust survivors. The words are theirs, although sometimes slightly adapted, especially in my case, to suit both my sense of drama and sense of humour, for I have done my best to reflect the Jewish ability to find humour in adversity.
Can you tell us a bit about how the project got started and how it evolved? When did you come on board? Was it performed elsewhere?
The writer/director/designer, Daniel Hrbek, comes from the same town, Olomouc, as the play’s Milos Dobry, and when he was told of Hana Pravda’s diary and her granddaughter Isobel Pravda, he conceived the piece. He interviewed Milos Dobry, and my text is the result of those interviews. Isobel uses Hana Pravda’s diaries almost exclusively. The Czech version is award-winning in the Czech Republic, and is now part of the repertoire of the Svandovo Divadlo Theatre in Prague, where Daniel Hrbek is the Artistic Director.
When Daniel decided to do an English version, Brian Daniels, an English producer, was brought in, and he recruited me for the role of Milos Dobry. I had previously done my one-man show of the stories of Sholem Aleichem at the New End Theatre in North London, which Brian Daniels owned, so he was well acquainted with my work. [At the time of this writing, Reichlin was performing his one-man show Roots…Shmoots! at the Cornelia Street Cafe featuring stories by Sholem Aleichem.]
Isobel and I traveled to Prague in December 2012, and we rehearsed for a couple of weeks before opening to the public. It was very well received, and Daniel spoke then about his hopes of bringing the play to the US. After Prague, we toured Brussels, Leeds and London, playing in Jewish cultural centers, theatres, schools, synagogues and even a prison!
By far the highest-profile performance we have given was at the United Nations as part of their Holocaust and Outreach Program. They praised the performance very highly, and in the question-and-answer session afterwards, I made my statement about what I believed the production could achieve. They endorsed my views in a wonderfully supportive letter to me, saying it was proof that art could play a vital part in Holocaust awareness. They said the audience feedback had been excellent, both as to the performance and the discussion.
This was the first time I have ever been able to make a personal political statement within a dramatic context. And on this subject! And in a forum like the UN! I found it validated my work as an actor very strongly. The whole experience has made me much more outspoken, and dismissive of the Jewish habit of keeping a low profile and hoping everything will just go away.
How is this role different from others that you have created, acted?
At first I was reluctant to get involved, never really having been one for Holocaust material, but Brian Daniels persuaded me to at least read it before saying no! I was surprised and impressed with the originality and the treatment, but particularly in that I found it did not cause pain and depression at all. Rather it was powerful, moving and even had moments of comedy potential. So I was quite happy to say “yes,” and the fact that it was all going to start in wonderful Prague was a bonus.
I had previously visited Prague when I was filming there a few years ago, and had taken advantage then of the opportunity to visit Therezienstad and the Jewish cemetery (the inspiration for the set design) and also went on the Jewish Prague tour. This stood me in good stead. Ironically, we were filming in the Barandof Studios, where the fake Red Cross film of Jewish life in Therezienstad was made. It was eerie.
I went to lectures given by survivors, and when a friend of mine in London, Dr. Margaret Brearley, had an evening at home for survivors, I was invited to meet them. It was deeply moving; they are all such surprising people, with an insight into life few people possess.
I was due to meet Milos Dobry, the man whom I portray in the play, but sadly, he fell ill and died a week before I arrived in Prague. His grandson, Petr Papousec, whom I mention in the play, gave me some very valuable insights into the man, however, which I was able to use in my interpretation of his words. Petr actually said he could see Milos in my performance! This was a wonderful compliment, because Milos was a 6-foot 8-inch athlete, a vastly different specimen from me, but I understood his humour and his energy, which were both so strong.
I have never done anything remotely like this before, and so had no frame of reference. The nearest I could get, I suppose, in my sense of being a Jewish victim, was when I played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice a year or two ago. Sholom Aleichem does contain the odd reference to anti-Jewish attitudes and events, but the evil in this play is hard to imagine, let alone recreate.
Had you worked with your castmate Isobel Pravda, the director Daniel Hrbek or any of the crew before?
This is the first time I have worked with any of the company.
Why is this play important for us today on a number of levels?
For me the importance of this play is not to invoke the usual expressions of “never again,” but in its wake-up call for Jews around the world to shake off their complacency, get their heads out of the sand, and realize that it IS HAPPENING AGAIN. All the old Nazi filth and lies are being trumpeted by Hitler’s wartime allies, the Muslims of Palestine, with the fantastic global reach of their propaganda machine, and the swamping of voting against Israel in the United Nations by 53 Muslim countries, with their oil-rich ability to buy support, and their currency of hatred. Israel stands alone against their glorying in death and killing, of each other, but especially of Jews and Israelis.
All of this has led the world at large to actually buy into the targeting and demonizing of Jews and of Israel. Angela Merkel can go public with displays of opposition to anti-semitism in Germany, but it is rife there, and virulent in Hungary, Poland, France. In fact, the whole of Europe, East and West, is experiencing an upsurge in this poison, as well as in Scandinavia. The sight and sound of Hitlerite slogans in European cities, and the assaults and murder of Jews is shocking and sickening. This play portrays the hideous end result of all that, and we can see the disease clearly in the Middle East today in the rampant Islamic extremists who attract their operatives from around the world, including from under our noses in the US and the UK.
Is there anything that the readers and/or playgoers might be interested to know about the production? Are there plans to take the production elsewhere in the US or in Europe? Should there be? Why?
The company is examining possibilities for more touring, and from the response we have received, it would seem that there is a real need for this production to be seen by as many people as possible, and not only by Jews, who will naturally see it first.
You are also performing a one-man show, Roots…Shmoots! by Sholom Aleichem. Tells us about how this project evolved and your background with Sholom Aleichem (including countries you’ve toured, festivals, etc.)
Roots…Shmoots! is my second adaptation of the writings of Sholem Aleichem. My first show, Sholom Aleichem…Now You’re Talking! toured 35 cities in eight countries and was a fabulous experience. I played to full houses everywhere, including Off Broadway and Off West End. I was amazed that no-one had done a full length production of this most adored of Jewish writers for decades!
I performed at the Edinburgh Festival three times, the Leeds Jewish Festival three times, and also at the Jewish Theatre Festival in Iasi, Romania, where I was introduced to them by my great friend and director, Moshe Yassur. While we were in Iasi, he was being filmed for Romanian TV going back to his old home, which was now occupied by gypsies. I went with him, and the experience resonated very strongly within me, as I have to portray a scene in our play, when, after the war, Milos goes back to his old house in Prague to find it occupied by people who turn him away.
After many Jewish community, charity, schools and retirement homes performances, I was actually nominated as the artist who contributed most to the Jewish community in the UK in the medium of theatre (won by David Hare). Another nomination came in for the UK EMMA, Ethnic and Multi-Cultural Media Award (won by Denzel Washington).
I have been most encouraged by the reaction to my new show, Roots…Shmoots! which I performed at the Cornelia Street Cafe in the West Village, and Daniel has asked me to do it at his theatre in Prague. This could be the start of something, and after New York, I am going to Chicago to see a couple of theatres who have asked me to mount a production there.
Do you find that audiences in the US are similar to those in the UK or is “getting the humor” somewhat different in the US and/or globally?
I actually find such similarity in my audiences, that if you blindfolded me I wouldn’t know which country I was in!
You have done extensive work in theater and in film. Any preference for the stage or the large or small screen? How did your training prepare you for both?
I once answered that I prefer the medium that I happen to be working in at the time, and I was told that was a very ‘Zen’ answer! And it’s true, up to a point. Actually, I don’t think anything can actually beat the responses of a live audience for me, but maybe that’s because Sholem Aleichem audiences are quite responsive!
My training was very formal, and geared entirely to the theatre. And acting only, none of this song and dance stuff at Central School of Speech and Drama in my day. You had to learn all that as you went along.
The life journey of the actor is so unique. What do you most find fascinating about it?
What’s fascinating about the life of an actor for me is the amazing variation in your working life (if you’re lucky enough to be working, that is) and the people you meet along the way.
Where do you currently live? Any projects that you are interested in and might consider doing in the UK? in the US? in the future?
I’m based in North London, but touring a play in the way we are now, or with my one-man shows, takes me from country to country. I love America for its people and its “getting on with life” atmosphere. The arts are a vibrant way of life here. In recent years I have become quite well known for narrating audiobooks, with a couple of awards to my name, and that takes me to recording studios up and down the UK. It’s nice to get out of town, but I love coming back to London (and New York).
Saul Reichlin appeared in The Good and the True at the RD2 Theatre and in Roots…Shmoots! at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village. Onwards and upwards, Saul, as you fly to Chicago for additional performances.