As long as you’re talking about jazz, dance, classical music, film and (perhaps especially) television, Israel is a known quantity in the international arts world. It is, out of all proportion to its size (a familiar dynamic for the start-up nation) and despite the chronically small amounts of public or private arts funding (also familiar) an incredible incubator for great talent. From jazz bassist Avishai Cohen to Amazonian actress Gal Gadot, from father of the superhero film Avi Arad to world-conquering young conductor Lahav Shani, from the Batsheva Dance Company to Homeland, Shtisel and other global TV hits. For various reasons, though, Israeli theatre hasn’t got that same sort of international recognition factor. I’ve worked in and around theatre all my adult life and, until recently, I couldn’t really tell you what Israeli theatre is. I’m not sure I can quite do that now, in fact, but thanks to a joint initiative of the Hanoch Levin Institute and Israel’s Foreign Ministry, I’ve started to get an idea.
So have dozens of theatre company chiefs from around the world, who are brought to Israel every November for Isra-Drama – an exhibition of Israeli theatre companies and theatre-makers. During an intensive five days, delegates get to see around a dozen shows (surtitled or translated into English), as well as round-table discussions and they get to mingle with Israeli artists. The aim is for these movers and shakers to, er, move and shake some of the shows they see on their various stages back home. Given the almost-complete absence of funding for self-paid touring productions from Israel, the folks at the Levin Institute hope that their visitors will create their own versions of Israeli plays, or perhaps find the means to bring entire productions overseas. They have had some success, even on the second front – the Cameri Theatre were able to tour a staging of Levin’s Requiem to China recently thanks to contacts made at Isra-Drama.
To someone like me, a theatre critic-turned-playwright (oh, and full declaration of interest here, I have a play currently being considered by several Israeli companies) who hails from the UK and also spends quite a lot of time in New York, Isra-Drama has been invaluable for starting to understand what the Israeli theatre scene looks like. Why is that important? Maybe because I’m a culture geek who likes to know such things, but maybe because a nation’s art forms help to define and explain it, even – especially – to itself. Theatre is entertainment, yes, but it’s also a form of debate; an internal debate that sometimes might even be an unconscious one. Watching a drama play out on a stage opens pathways in our minds and in our hearts that might otherwise remain closed; theatre invites us to consider issues and feelings in ways that somehow bypass the tunnel-minded tribalism of the Facebook age. So, yup. It’s important.
First thing to say. Israeli theatre is not Broadway. It’s not Off-Broadway. And it’s not the West End or the London Fringe. But Israel is not America, nor is it the UK, with their infinitely greater financial resources, age-old theatrical heritage and hugely-developed training and recruitment infrastructures. Of the various Isra-Drama offerings, only a few were what would be recognised as big, traditional shows – Motti Lerner’s character-based murder drama The Cause Of Death Is Unknown at Habima, Etgar Keret’s funny fantasy tale Fatso (though I prefer its Hebrew title, Anihu – “I Am He”) at the Cameri and Gesher Theatre’s revival of a classic, The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer (adapted by Yevgeny Arye). The rest, though I didn’t see them all, were a combination of experimental pieces and physical theatre that jumped genres with alacrity.
So for instance, there was the touching Things I Found In My Mother’s Closet by Nadav Bossem – subtitled, “A Wandering Memorial Exhibition” the piece was less theatre and more art installation, and the audience was invited to walk around Bossem’s reconstruction of his dead mother’s apartment, his tribute to her. But then two actresses read the mother’s letters, or played her favourite card game (with her actual playing cards), then invited audience members to join in, and we didn’t really know what art form we were in, but in it we were. That was at Tmuna Theatre, a converted, multi-space former car mechanics’ garage in Tel Aviv. Also at Tmuna, a memorably intense piece by Neta Weiner called Mejinik – a meditation on siblings that starts with Weiner and his colleagues sitting among the audience on either side of a traverse stage, breezily introducing members of their real-life families seated nearby, before bursting at points into a ritual in which chanting, rhythmic breathing and accordions dissected and eventually overwhelmed naturalism. Was it about family in the literal sense, the wider Jewish family, the warring family that is Israel and the Middle East or humanity in general? It shifted its focus as often as its form.
And that kind of energy, I think, is the guiding spirit of Israeli theatre. In the West End there is a saying: “You can’t make a living in the theatre, but you can make a killing.” In other words, huge financial rewards are occasionally still possible. That isn’t so in Israel, and in a way I think that often frees Israeli artists to create whatever feels right, not to worry about production values or in what box their work belongs. Formal drama, physical theatre or genre-defying shape-shifter; in a beautiful building like Gesher or a converted garage like Tmuna (one piece, about censorship on Facebook, even took place in an office at Tel Aviv’s Shalom Tower) – Israeli theatre-makers make theatre, whatever the challenges, whatever the odds. They make it happen. And some crazy, bizarre, classical, formal, informal, dramatic things result.
That might not be enough to define Israeli theatre as a movement. But hey, when did Israeli society ever make for an easy definition?