Refugee love story brought to life

Ben Caplan and Mary Fay Coady in Old Stock. Photo: Stoo Metz

CAN you love him and me too?” It is a beautifully poignant moment in Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story when Chaim poses this question to Chaya, holding hope that she can reconcile her past life into a promising new world.

Casting light on how past and present can coexist harmoniously, Canadian songwriter, performer and entertainer Ben Caplan – who collaborated on Old Stock with playwright Hannah Moscovitch and her husband, director Chris Barry – commented: “We can welcome into our societies people who have a relationship with an old life, an old world, to a culture and place that they have every right to be proud of”.

Set to run from January 12-20 at the Belvoir St Theatre as part of Sydney Festival, the production explores a blossoming romance between Jewish Romanian refugees: Chaim and Chaya, who fled the Eastern European pogroms and meet upon arriving in Canada.

Their ensuing love story serves as a catalyst to a deeper message inherent in Old Stock – that we can both assimilate refugees into our society’s multicultural fabric, while embracing the languages and cultural traditions they bring, and the connections they retain to their past world.

“The expectation that we often place on refugees is to say, ‘Don’t speak that language, don’t wear those clothes, I want to hear you fit in with this culture,’ and in many ways, that is an unfair expectation and it leads to an impossible relationship,” Caplan explained.

In Old Stock – described by Caplan as a “concert-theatre mash-up” and which has won multiple Edinburgh Fringe awards – Chaim looks forward with hopeful vision whereas Chaya, played by Mary Fay Coady, nostalgically yearns for a bygone era, longing for the husband she lost.

“Chaya represents Romania and Chaim represents Canada. Over the course of their relationship they are able to find a harmony between the two,” said Caplan. “In many ways it is a metaphor for how we can find peace with the refugees in our own societies.”

As for the name Old Stock, the refugee crisis facing western democracies – and Canada in particular – informed the memorable name selected for this powerful production.

Caplan relayed how, in the 2015 leadership campaign, then Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper shared some thoughts about healthcare for asylum claimants. “We do not offer them a better health-care plan than the ordinary Canadian can receive, and I think that’s something both new and existing and old-stock Canadians agree with,” Harper was reported to have said.

Causing uproar, many deemed the controversial remark to be part of a broader approach aimed at fostering an us-versus-them mentality.

Caplan questioned, “What does that concept [of an old-stock Canadian] refer to? Am I an old-stock Canadian as a third generation because my great-grandparents who came from Poland were not old-stock Canadians, and even my parents in the ’60s and ’70s encountered a lot of antisemitism.”

The intellectual construct of an old-stock Canadian paired with the scale of refugee suffering in 2015, prompted Caplan, Barry and Moscovitch to tell this moving story as a way of reflecting both on Jewish identity and on the contemporary migrant situation, said Caplan, who has previously performed in Australia with his band The Casual Smokers at Bluesfest in 2013, and Sydney Festival in 2014.

Operating on multiple levels, Old Stock may also refer to the continuity of Jewish life – the lasting traditions inherited from previous generations, and unresolved traumas that rise to the surface in present contexts; a sentiment reflected in Old Stock’s rich klezmer music.

“People like to think of klezmer as this static, particular music that exists in one part of the world up until a certain period of time,” said Caplan.

But klezmer was a living, cultural phenomenon, explained the lead performer, which was “evolving, changing and being influenced by other music around it and so a big part of what I have tried to do with the show is just take that klezmer music and infuse it with other genres”.

The music can be seen as a metaphor for the narrative arc, alluded Caplan.
Past traumas are perhaps never completely resolved, but constantly re-understood and integrated into new situations.

“The theme of people having to flee for their lives and trying to make a new home in a new land is a story that has been revamped with contemporary influences,” Caplan remarked.

SOPHIE DEUTSCH

Info: sydneyfestival.org.au/old-stock-a-refugee-love-story.
Tickets: $60-66.