Alexander Goldberg
Rabbi Goldberg, Dean of Religious Life, Surrey University

Israeli talent in pursuit of London’s West End dream

Yuval Shvartsman and Ruby performing their Chinese-Israeli Cabaret

Had you asked me 20 years ago to name a famous Israeli actor the only one that would have come to mind was Topol, the star of Fiddler on the Roof. Now, millions are watching Fauda, Shtisel and Hostages. Gal Gadot and Shira Haas are household names and now talented Israeli actors are trying to make it on the West End Stage.

I meet many of them as Chaplain to Guildford School of Acting (GSA). The school only accepts the best of the best: those coming onto their postgraduate courses need to show they have a history of talent and recognition already.

One of those is Yuval Shvartsman to whom I spoke on Zoom this week. It turns out Yuval has made several choices in his illustrious acting career: He’s chosen musical drama over regular drama despite having national success with the latter and, in recent years, London’s West End over New York’s Broadway.

Yuval’s first break into acting happened in 2008. Sitting at home he saw an advert for new acting talent to come forward for Israeli tv’s leading kids channel. He quit his job, wrote a comedic song about a donkey with work-life balance issues and found himself spending three months on tv becoming a household name.

“It was great but I believe you need to learn your craft: you have to give it 100%’, he decided and took himself to acting school for three years. In that time he learnt singing, voice, acting, ballet and music.

Early success as a professional came quick. Along with his other arts forms he brought puppeteering to the Israeli stage: “We did a production of Bialik, Israel’s nationals poet’s Behind the Fence. I had to be a goose and in my puppeteering, I used the same techniques as warhorse. I became that goose. The Tel Aviv critics loved it”. Indeed they did, with Tel Aviv paper, Haaretz, commenting ‘the goose stole the show’.

Yuval used his comedic talent to gain big roles in theatre about serious issues such as Black Panthers that centres on the story of 1970s Israeli movement to achieve equality for its Sephardi and Mizrachi communities. Away from comedy, he had breakthrough success starring in Bulldozer, a hard hitting play set on the eve of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gush Katif settlements in Gaza.

“I’m not interested in the politics. I just want to get inside the minds and bodies of those living out those moments in history. Israeli news interviewed me about my portrayal of John Kerry in a TV parody campaign. I didn’t want to be named which is unusual for an actor. I know now that a great actor has get up everyday and put the same performance together time and again and portray the good, the bad and the ugly”

In recent years he has gone more into musical drama in shows such as ‘Waitress’ and ‘The 25th annual Putnam county spelling bee. “I love it. In Israel it’s a growing art form though shows often have short runs, a few months, a year. The West End is the home of musical drama”

As we end the interview, we turn to his time here. He’s starred in a number of musical drama and non-musical productions but he has discovered here in England both pantomime and the musical cabaret artform. He starred in front of 1000s with Peter Duncan in Jack and the Beanstalk as the Giant.

“I love the audience, the whole artform. It’s fun, it’s energetic, it’s comedy. It’s very British’.

I ask him about his last performance before corona: a sell-out Israeli-Chinese Musical Cabaret show with his friend Ruby, a Chinese actress. Ruby has gone back to China but Yuval hopes to revive the routine.

We talk about the energy inherent in his comedy, in Israeli comedy: “I guess that’s right. Look we live in a war zone, you begin to appreciate life, being alive, it’s part of the mentality…. it gives our theatre edge and creativity. I want to bring that here’.

Move over Topol. When the theatres reopen,Yuval Shvartsman is here

About the Author
Rabbi Alexander Goldberg is a public sector rabbi in the U.K., a barrister and human rights activist. He is currently the Dean of the College of Chaplains and Coordinating Chaplain at the University of Surrey where he leads a team of 12 Chaplains from 8 faith and belief traditions. He is the only rabbi within this role in Europe. He continues to be Chief Executive of the Carob Tree Project, working on a number of international and UK-based community relations and community development projects and is the Jewish chaplain to the University of Surrey. Alex regularly co-hosts a BBC radio show, a contributor to BBC Radio 2's Pause For Thought and was a member of the BBC's Religion and Ethics Conference. He chairs the English Football Association's Faith Network and founded the human rights group René Cassin.
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