History in the making
Beit Lessin's 'The History Boys' reveals three insights into Israeli theater.
Apart from the wonder elicited by the complexity and sensitivity of the play itself, "The History Boys" (by Alan Bennett, directed by Micha Lewensohn at the Beit Lessin Theater) offers insight into three interesting issues in Israeli theater.
First, the choice of the play itself. It is no accident that this is the first time one of Bennett's plays (which include "The Madness of George III") is being performed in Israel. Bennett's plays belong to a certain genre of English theater that requires the actors to be able to speak and the audience to be able to listen. This is also theater that involves a type of English humor and behavior that are ostensibly foreign to the local audience and actors.
Even so, specifically in recent years and specifically at Beit Lessin, we have enjoyed several productions of this type of theater - "The Real Thing" by Tom Stoppard, "Private Lives" by Noel Coward, and now this play by Bennett. Suddenly it turns out that if the production is meticulous, the actors do not look like children wearing their fathers' suits and the English understatement manages to sound natural, even witty, in Hebrew. Perhaps we will yet see good productions of Oscar Wilde.
The second matter of interest is the casting of Oded Kotler as Hector, the history teacher - a rotund, eccentric man, past his prime and not exactly morally balanced, but still a very inspiring teacher who knows how to teach his students what is important, not what will help them get into a prestigious university.
Lewensohn recently had the chance to work with two actors who were once Israeli theater's young and beautiful: Oded Teomi and Kotler. Both are now close to 70. They have reached the point where they must change their stage image, to learn not to be impressive, handsome and in full control. Each is facing this life change a bit differently. All in all, Kotler played fewer roles than Teomi did throughout his career, as he also managed a theater and directed. Kotler is also blessed with youngish looks.
This is all the more apparent in "The History Boys," as video clips, ostensibly filmed by the history students, are screened between scenes. One features pictures from Hector's past, using footage of a younger Kotler. Anyone slightly familiar with the history of Israeli theater sees that young, handsome visage and gains an additional dimension of theatrical pleasure from the sight of Hector on the stage, including amazement at the actor's own theatrical history. In this play, Kotler also dares to open up to emotion, to forego his smooth, charming image, to touch the pain of life passing by.
The third issue inherent in this production did not exist to this extent even in the London original. This is a play about the nature of teaching and the image of the teacher, and naturally attention is focused on the two teachers who reflect different approaches: Hector, the teacher for life, and Irwin, the purposeful, younger teacher who presents history as journalism - to hell with the facts, as long as the approach is interesting.
This play, however, is titled, "The History Boys," and the students are the battlefield. The Tel Aviv production has successfully cast a group of eight young actors, most of them in their premiere professional theater performance, such that this ensemble, as individuals, becomes the heart of the play. They are not only young and beautiful and know how to act; they also sing and play music. It's not that they know how to sing and play and move and can act in a musical. They are not acting singers; they are singing actors, who can switch from speech to song completely naturally, in character.
Their performance evokes a type of team spirit and unity. Thus, for example, when one student sets a chair in the middle of the stage and the chair's back comes off, another student moves in swiftly and naturally to fix it, and a third student nonchalantly reinforces the repair. This group is a kind of statement about the young generation of actors sprouting here, actors who are learning and developing and know how to work. And within this fraternity of young actors, there is also room for each to stand out.
Bennett did particularly well with three of the boys. One is Posner (Ido Rosenberg), a Jew with homosexual tendencies, perhaps the character in whom the playwright invested most of his emotions. Rosenberg is the most experienced of the young actors, and knows exactly how to make the most of this role. The second is Scripps, Bennett's intellect, who had a larger role in the original production. Here he is convincingly played by Daniel Bronfman. Still, quite naturally, the spotlight is stolen by Dan Shapira as Dakin, perhaps the object of everyone's envy. He is talented, smooth, charming and knows it, behaving with a kind of chutzpa that states, "This is me. This is what I feel like doing. Any problems with that?"
There are many more good things to say about this production, but these three issues go beyond it.