At the foot of Everest
Once again, it seems the biblical drama has not been given the proper turn on the stage that would befit its true greatness
People have said that Matityahu Shoham's "Tyre and Jerusalem" is the Everest of the revived Hebrew drama. The play, written in the 1930s, was intended to respond to the yearning for a sublime biblical drama, and indeed, it does make use of characters from the Scriptures (Jezebel, Elijah, Ahab, Elisha). Through a plot of personal passions, Shoham draws an idea-driven drama about the essence of Jewish existence - between the way of God, fanatic religion, and the way of the Baal, fanatic libidinousness.
Indeed, as all of Shoham's admirers have noted, the value of the play lay not only in its plot and its ideas, but also in its lingual qualities. It was a biblical drama in the full sense of the word, drawn from the ancient Hebrew sources, replete with neologisms, written with gravity, with a great deal of Ashkenazi flavor.
Since its earliest days, the Hebrew theater has struggled with the question of how to present "Tyre and Jerusalem" and make it understandable to the audience. In the 1950s, Avraham Shlonsky was asked by the Habimah Theater to adapt the play to the Sephardi pronunciation, but in the end the play was not staged.
Fifteen years ago, the play was staged by Yossi Yzraely, as part of the Israel Festival in a Habimah production, with the participation of third-year students at the Beit Zvi drama school (some of whom later became Beit Lessin stars), and with linguistic arrangement by Nissim Aloni. This production, ambitious as it may be, is not the first production of the play, as the Beit Lessin Theater public relations department would have us believe.
According to the article by Yosefa Even-Shoshan that appears in the program, the adaptation gives up in terms of the weight of the play, and essentially it lacks almost all ordered gravity. The majority of Shoham's text is replaced with words that are supposed to be understandable to the contemporary Israeli audience. The question is asked: is the adaptation an attempt to cope with the play, with its linguistic magnitude, or is it a translation into Hebrew of the plot and the ideas that meets the needs of contemporary theater? One gets the impression that yet again, the work has not been given a proper turn on the stage that befits its true greatness.
As for the music written by Gil Shohat for the current production, the idea of converting the tonal environment into a sort of emotional backdrop, a magical carpet of music set to Shoham's text and sublime thematics, is a highly interesting one. Shoham is a superior melodist and orchestrator, and his soundtrack is effective and lends support to the play, although at times when the music is played for its own sake, it might have been better to create a more luscious orchestration sound. It may be that the harmonious vocalism of the child-angel and the soprano miss the basic theme of conflict between two cultures.
As for the direction, Yzraely seems to have concentrated on quilting together a theatrical spectacle, and this comes at the expense of deciphering the dramatic elements of the plot. In spite of his successes with actors in the ambitious classic plays put on at the Jerusalem Khan (Ibsen, Lorca, etc.) this play resembles his "Per Gint" at Habimah. The lighting, the smoke, the dramatic entrances (and less dramatic exits, due to the need to be careful descending from the round, inclined stage surface). Caught in the middle are the actors, left to make large and extroverted gestures that are basically devoid of content.
The scenery by David Sharir produces the right style of site of incidence. On an empty round stage, which is a sort of arena, a dramatic tree branch climbs in the background, with a statue of Ashtoret (which could have been done less artificially). Conversely, the costumes by Ofra Confino although they distinguish between Tyre and Jerusalem in a clear fashion - they are made of different materials - but the actors, in the flowing robes, look like they are at a fancy ball where everyone is careful not to walk on the hem of their own robes.
But the main problem is that very few of the actors are graced with the linguistic capacity and emotional range required for a text of this sort, even in its adapted version. This is especially obvious in Yona Elian who plays Jezebel. In the key monologue about her relations with Elijah, I had to follow her words in subtitles in order to understand them. She was also deceived into thinking that libidinousness and sensuality on the stage are expressed in vigorous hip work (one may assume that the responsibility for this lies with the director).
Sensuality and libidinousness should have been the outcome, not the starting point. Without sufficient emotional support or depth, missing here, the play lacks the significant focal point of passion to lead the plot. At the performance I attended, Elian fell off the stage into the seats from great height, but astonishingly returned to the stage and finished the play.
Students of the history of theater will find some interesting footnotes, since it was here that Yona Elian began her acting career as a partner to Oded Teomi in the play "Biography." Now, too, she is Teomi's partner, but in this play Jezebel and Elijah do not share even a single scene together. Teomi has very impressive moments as the stern man of God, and he permits himself to concentrate and to radiate the depths of his personality. He is also graced with the requisite linguistic capacity. But when Teomi starts waving his hands, he becomes a birthday party magician, and all of the magic fails all at once.
Ohad Shahar has a few good moments in the role of Ahab, mainly in his first scene, but Ahab himself admits that he is a marginal character in this spectacle. Uri Ravitz is excellent, but this is not the first time he has created an on-stage parody of a character. Shlomo Bar Shavit in the role of Ahikar has linguistic aptitude, but in a way, his matter-of-fact approach defies the artificial style created on the stage.
In truth, only one actor appearing in the play is imbued with both personal charisma and the rhetorical ability needed to carry the burden of this production in the required intensity: Gil Frank, who plays Elisha. If only the other actors had the ability to hold a drawn string between the turbulent emotional aspect and the exactitude of the external design, it would be possible to start talking about an emotional experience.
One wonders if mounting a play described as "the high point in the annals of the Hebrew drama" while circumventing most of the aesthetic problems it presents, and offering it to an audience that has been weaned on realistic Israeli dramas and amusements - and for a run of only 15 performances, yet - is a case of doing the requisite minimum, and one that lacks all cultural significance, at that. One gets the impression that the outcome of the cultural confrontation is an admission of our failure in this confrontation. Not only as creators, but as audience and cultural environment. We remain at the foot of Everest, evidently because we do not have enough oxygen.
"Tyre and Jerusalem" - Beit Lessin Theater. By Matityahu Shoham; linguistic and dramatic adaptation: Yosefa Even-Shoshan; dramatic adaptation and director: Yossi Yzraely; music: Gil Shohat; scenery: David Sharir; costumes: Ofra Confino; conductor: Stanley Sperber; lighting: Felice Ross; movement: Marina Baltov. Actors: Hadas Kalderon, Shlomo Bar Shavit, Gil Frank, Oded Teomi, Yona Elian, Ohad Shahar