Published on December 24, 2007
When I told an old friend and fellow English Lit graduate that I'd watched two Shakespeare plays on a trip to Israel, he gave me a puzzled look. "What language were they speaking?"
"Hebrew of course, with English surtitles," I replied.
"Well, isn't the Bard's old English in iambic pentameter not foreign enough for us Thais?" he questioned.
Actually, no, especially not in the case of the "Hamlet" by the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, one of Israel's most critically acclaimed professional theatre companies. After all, this is a production that's enjoyed more than 550 sold-out performances - and still counting - since its premiere in 2005, and bagged awards both at home and at Shakespeare festivals as far away as Gdansk, Bucharest and Washington DC.
Apart from producing home-grown masterpieces by prominent Israeli artists like Hanoch Levin, this country's first Hebrew-language repertory theatre has also staged international classical, modern, and contemporary dramatic works. These range from Aristophanes' "Lysistrata" and Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors" to Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman", David Mamet's "Oleanna" and David Harrower's "Blackbird".
The internationally famous company is comfortably housed in their 11,000 square-metre New Cameri Theatre Arts Centre, funded by Mifal Hapayis, Israel's national lottery, and Tel Aviv's local authority. The centre comprises three fully-equipped spaces - a 950-seat auditorium, a 450-seat hall, and a 200-seat "black box". Over its seven decades in operation, this "theatre of social responsibility" has staged more than 500 productions for the viewing pleasure of over 20 million playgoers, both in Israel and abroad.
When this reviewer entered the rectangular-shaped black box in the basement of the Cameri Theatre, he stood stunned. It was a 10am - yes, in the morning - on a Tuesday, and all the seats were filled, and not by students arriving in school buses but by the ordinary theatre-going public. Just as surprising was the fact that the seats were modelled after revolving steel bar stools, with cushioned black leather bottoms and back supports.
These were divided into two sections facing each other, with the centre aisle in the middle and raised platforms at both ends forming the performance space - what's known as a traverse stage configuration. In addition, there were two platforms on the left side and one more on the right, to the side of the seated audience. So, the traverse stage almost surrounded the audience in places. This set design by Ruth Dar fitted the dramatic journey of the characters well and added much fluidity to the staging.
Even more significant than the fun and excitement the audience had in spinning their seats round to follow the dramatic action was the ensemble's energy and intensity that updated the four-century-old play, making it relevant for a modern audience. The state of Denmark became the state of contemporary world, though not necessarily limited to that of Israel. The performers looked and sounded fresh throughout, despite having delivered these lines more than 550 times.
Most commendable was Itay Tiran in the title role. Although the prince famously prevaricates, favouring interminable thought over action, Tiran outlined the clarity of his lines in Hebrew with a body language that spoke volumes. In Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" speech, for example, we saw him holding a knife, oftentimes pressing it against his wrist. Kudos was also due to the director Omri Nitzan here.
At many moments, I found myself ignoring the English translations of the text projected on the wall, able instead to soak up an understanding by carefully observing and listening to the skilful actors. The fact that the stage configuration enhanced the intimate relationship between performers and audience - echoing the playhouses of Shakespeare's day - probably played a big role in this uniquely spontaneous experience, too.
The Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv will take "Hamlet" to China next year for their Asian debut. If administrative and financial support from Israeli and Thai agencies is forthcoming, Bangkok audiences might also get to enjoy this remarkable production in 2008, when the two countries celebrate the 60th anniversary of the independence of Israel, and the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok. Well, "To be or not to be, that is the question."
Later on the same day, south-eastwards of Tel Aviv the Jerusalem Khan Theatre Company, the Holy City's only repertory theatre troupe, staged another Shakespearean tragedy, "Othello". Despite the colourful set and costume design, some members of the cast were unconvincing. The stage presence of Iago, for example, was almost nil. He looked more like a supporting character than the major antagonist. Also, on witnessing the actor in the title role show his anger by shaking his legs when seated at his desk, most in the audience divined that they weren't in the presence of great acting.
This, added to the lack of legroom provided by the seating in this playhouse, made for a not-so-pleasant experience. The out-of-sync English surtitles didn't help things, either, making Michael Gurevitch's production a demanding watch for the audience. Proof of the latter came after the interval, when only half the audience bothered to return.
The writer can be contacted at Pawit.M @ chula.ac.th. He wishes to thank Eran Baniel, the artistic director of International Exposure to Israeli Theatre for all his help on this memorable theatregoing trip.