James Inverne

How my YouTube play responds to the judicial overhaul

Stress can be debilitating. Let’s admit that. The intense political tension around the Israeli government’s proposed judicial overhaul has not only threatened to tear the very social fabric of the country apart, it may have rendered many of its artists – as anguished as the rest of the population – all but impotent.

Because where are we? Writing this as a playwright, some five months into this crisis, where are we? And what, after all, are artists for? I grew up to glorious stories about playwrights and composers who could awaken the consciences of their societies – Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident playwright who became president; Giuseppe Verdi, whose very name became a popular acronym for the Italian Risorgimento and its bid to crown Victor Emmanuel king (“Viva Verdi” – “Viva Vittorio Emanuele, Re DItalia”!); Arthur Miller with his furious scream against McCarthyism, The Crucible; Brecht; Shostakovich; all the way back to Euripides and the ancient Greeks.

And where are the new Israeli works of art, reflecting our situation to ourselves, helping us to think and feel in new ways? Isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Or is it?

Certainly many political leaders have cared about, even feared the power of music and theatre. I remember as a journalist reporting on Zimbabwe at a time when its dictatorial leader, Robert Mugabe, was driving musicians into exile while thugs who supported him were beating up actors on stage, mid-performance because the places where art is performed were the last bastions of free speech in that beleaguered country, and Mugabe knew it. He wasn’t alone. While Nazi Germany co-opted the anthemic power of classical music (something the CIA noted, post-war, which is why they then decided to fund the less populist atonal composers), Stalin seems to have been highly agitated about Shostakovich’s nerve-jangling symphonies (why he never had him arrested, or worse, is an enduring mystery).

And right up to the present day, political leaders are often very concerned with the traffic of their stages – remember how a publicly frustrated US President Trump dismissed the musical Hamilton as “overrated” after an on-stage appeal (and implied critique) from its actors? Or how subsequent Netanyahu governments have threatened to withhold state funding from theatre companies that dare to show plays they considered to be too off-message (and no, I’m not remotely comparing Trump or Netanyahu to those earlier, monstrous dictators)?

But flip that coin over. What is it, really, that our theatre-makers and composers are doing? What should we do? And, just as important, what can we do?

James Inverne’s new, judicial overhaul-inspired play is presented as an audio drama on YouTube, by Theatre Ariel

If you detect a lot of angst and self-doubt in all of this, you’d be right. It was an odd truism that, as a reporter, it was always the articles I cared most about that were the hardest. Because writing is as much about craft as art, and craft requires a certain amount of emotional distance – it demands a sense of balance, of form, weighting, flow, rhythm. It’s hard to gauge all of those things if you’re in floods of tears.

Times don’t come any more fraught than in the months following September 11, 2001. Fear, anger and grief rolled out from Ground Zero in New York, in shockwaves across the world. Back then, I was an arts reporter for TIME Magazine and felt certain that artists, those chroniclers of our times, would quickly respond. How could they not? Yet, to my intense surprise, it took at least a full year before substantial works of art relating to 9/11 started to emerge.

I think it’s only since the judicial overhaul hit the news that I’ve started to fully understand the reasons why. If a writer goes through stages of grief, those involve being dazzled by the sheer speed of events, blocked by the raw feeling that clogs all of your creative arteries, while the urgent sense of a need to do something leaves any writing you might dream up seeming pitifully inadequate.

In my case, inspiration finally arrived out of the blue, while I was listening to a history podcast one night and hearing, as a brief aside, a story; an arcane piece of Israeli history that suddenly seemed to me to shed a new kind of light on our country’s situation. Here, I clearly saw, was a story I could tell, one that might let in the sunlight we all so clearly needed. Hope.

I wrote quickly and with joy, and a 20-minute play, The Song, was created. I decided to record it as an audio play, and for the sake of authenticity to cast some of Israel’s most accomplished young actors from two of its leading drama schools – the Beit Zvi School For The Performing Arts and the Yoram Loewenstein Acting Studio, both in Tel Aviv. We recorded and edited it in the excellent Signal Recording Studios, coincidentally just metres away from Kaplan Street, the epicentre of the anti-overhaul protests. And the recording was accepted by the much-respected, Philadelphia-based Jewish company, Theatre Ariel, who have released it on their YouTube channel.

I’m proud of it, we all poured a great deal of feeling into the project, and here’s what it isn’t. It is not angry, it’s not polemical, it doesn’t parse the right and wrongs of the overhaul (though I’m very clear in my own mind on which side of the issue I stand). It simply tells a true story that I think works as a beautiful allegory, and can perhaps comfort those of us who feel like the end of the world is nigh, or at least (heaven forbid) the end of the Israel we love. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it won’t help. And maybe what I should have done is precisely the opposite – perhaps in times like these, a playwright should seek to raise all hell with tales that ignite passions, stoke social outrage.

But that’s the thing about art. You usually can’t control it, can’t even direct it beyond a certain point, not if it’s to going be any good. Or maybe I mean that at this distance to a dramatic event you can’t. You’re still dealing with the grief. And sometimes you need the art you create to be what you personally need it to be, to get from one day to the next.

Logistically, it’s also difficult to get these things done in a timely manner when news moves so fast. Even when it doesn’t. Playwright Tom Stoppard is given to saying that he spends 10 per cent of his time writing plays, and 90 per cent attending to the business of getting them produced. Given those kinds of proportions, how could theatre ever address the news while it’s still news? Arguably, even Vaclav Havel’s drama was less of the political moment than his journalism, while Brecht’s anti-Hitler classic The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui, written in exile in 1941, wasn’t actually produced until the 1950’s.

But that’s OK, too. Because what one crisis inspires can serve us in the next. After the war, Brecht added scabrous lines to the very end of Ui, that act as an unforgettable warning to the future: “Don’t yet rejoice in his defeat, you men! / Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard / The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

That said, I’ve always been fascinated by stories of attempts to specifically create theatre in ultra-swift response to political events (with mixed results), notably the ‘Living Newspaper’ companies in 1930’s America, and Joan Littlewood’s similar project in London’s East End – all the way up to the verbatim theatre movement of 1990’s UK, putting court proceedings and the like on stage. But these had more than one foot in the world of documentary.

Sometimes, a work of art already in development will take on a new emphasis in the wake of current events. After Trump’s controversial immigration policies hit the headlines, a line in Hamilton – “Immigrants, we get the job done” – drew nightly cheers (so much so that its writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, had to add a few more bars to build in time for that applause). I myself am working on a full-length play which touches on issues of leadership and ego, and I’ve had to pull those into the foreground because, as a director I’m working with pointed out, “Israel today is not the same as when you first started writing this.”

The best plays about this vexed period in Israeli politics will probably start to emerge a few years from now, once spirits have settled and the creatively paralysing sense of emergency has, one way or another, died down. Yet there is definitely one role that drama written today can, maybe must, play. It can unify us. It can remind all the tribes of our segmented and polarised society of the emotions that we all feel; that if we all respond to a character’s pain, or her delight, in the same way, we can remember that we are all one society. And if The Song, and other works of art, help to accomplish that, that’s not nothing. It may even be the reason theatre exists.

James Inverne’s ‘The Song’ is on YouTube, presented by Theatre Ariel.

About the Author
James Inverne is a playwright, cultural critic and the author of The Faber Pocket Guide To Musicals. He was formerly the editor of Gramophone Magazine, and performing arts correspondent for Time Magazine. He has written for many publications including the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and Sunday Telegraph, and published five books. His play "A Walk With Mr. Heifetz" was premiered Off-Broadway.