Actor and stand-up comedian Omid Djalili counts himself in a minority within a minority four times over – which probably makes him perfect casting for Fiddler On The Roof, the big summer musical at Chichester Festival Theatre this year.
The point is that Omid knows what persecution means.
Fiddler on the Roof is set in 1905 in a small village in Imperial Russia. Tevye, a poor dairyman, and his wife, Golde, are blessed with five witty and beautiful daughters.
But Tevye’s daughters have their own ideas about who they are going to marry. And as change and new ideas roll in from the big cities, the old ways of life are under attack from all directions.
Mass eviction looms.
As Omid says: ‘If you look at the specificity of it, early 1900s in a small village in the Ukraine, you might think what is relevant about that? But it is like The Godfather.
‘It is about family. In The Godfather, you have got this Italian American story of family, a man with his children. And in Fiddler on the Roof, you have got Tevye and his five children, three of whom are going to get married. And beyond that, it is about immigration and about people being persecuted.
‘I come from a hugely-persecuted minority in Iran where people can’t go to university and lose their jobs, a group that are singled out by a group of people that live with them and then suddenly turn on them.
‘I was born in London, but I am a minority within a minority four times over. I am British-Iranian, and within that I am a Bahá’í, the persecuted minority, and even within the Bahá’í community, I am thought a bit weird!
‘It’s a unique situation. I am not a Jewish person playing a Jew, but I know that kind of persecution.’
If you are part of a persecuted minority, it is with you all the time, Omid says. ‘I am constantly on Twitter. There are some Bahá’ís in prison, and I am constantly campaigning to get them out. And I am very conscious when I walk into a Persian restaurant and they ask me if I am doing the Ramadan fast, and I say, “No, I am a Bahá’í”, they might still like me, but they are looking at me in a different way. There is prejudice everywhere.’
And that’s another reason for doing the show.
‘It is being done in the heart of Chichester which is a very white middle-class audience. They have told me at the box office that they have never had so many foreign names coming through. I do hope people will be challenged by the material and I do hope it will remove some prejudice.’
And as a father too, Omid can relate to Tevye and his struggles with his daughters: ‘Fiddler on The Roof talks about fatherhood and parenthood and deals with arranged marriage, and even now I am challenged by my own children who always think that I am at least one step behind the times!’
Inevitably, a lot of people will see Omid as first and foremost a stand-up comedian: ‘But the acting came first. I went to university and studied theatre. The acting was always the dream. But I fell into stand-up because I must have had funny bones. But I will always act if the part is right. And this is great to be doing this do.
‘This is an opportunity to do some great work with a great team. I usually hate rehearsals because it is difficult to be focused and committed and disciplined, and I hate repetition, but I am loving the rehearsals for this.
‘(CFT artistic director) Daniel (Evans who is directing Fiddler) is one of the finest directors I have worked with. He is an actor’s director. You never feel fearful of making any mistakes. He never comes down on you. He is always gently cajoling and encouraging.
‘And so the acting has always been there for me... but I do feel my heart has always been in stand-up. I started doing tours that were really well received, and that was a dream. But I do realise that I am a company man. If someone else gets a great line, I love it. I do love being part of an ensemble and creating something. I am a big football fan, and I definitely come from that team-player mentality. There are no stars in this production. We are all working together.
‘But yes, I suppose acting and stand-up are quite different, but actually once you get in front of an audience there are subtle cross-overs. I have had some great jokes which I have over-performed or under-performed and haven’t got a laugh. You can write great jokes and then deliver them really badly.
‘It is all about the delivery and the timing, and that’s also what you get in the theatre, that sense of having to get the timing right, but also that delivery, even down to a particular syllable. So yes, there are cross-overs between the two.’
And someone somewhere sensed he could do it. Omid admits getting the part of Tevye was a big surprise.
‘It just came out of nowhere. I suppose Daniel saw something. I don’t think he was a particular fan of my stand-up comedy, but he must have been aware of me, and then it was all about getting the estate (of the musical) to say they are OK with my casting.’
Fiddler On The Roof, based on the Sholem Aleichem Stories, comes with book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. * * Fiddler on The Roof is at Chichester Festival Theatre on the main-house stage now until September 2. Tickets on cft.org.uk.