Stage Animal / Self-obsession on and off the stage
Superficial figures and their sex lives are at the center of 'Monogamy.' Wouldn't it have been better for Habima to invest its money in producing a more worthwhile play?
This shouldn't have happened. A spectator coming to the theater is supposed to take an interest in many things: in the plot, the characters, the style, the acting, the directing. When the play is really good, he is supposed to take all of these in, perhaps reflect on them later in greater detail, and allow himself to feel what this play - the theme, the story, the characters - has to say to him as a person; how he would react if something similar to that which took place onstage were to happen to him.
What shouldn't have happened is what happened to me in "Monogamy," (the play's title in English is "O Go My Man," an anagram of "monogamy" ) a play by Stella Feehily, directed by Rami Heuberger at Habima Theater. And what happened was that as the play progressed, and especially when it was over, my mind was preoccupied with one question: "Who in the Habima Theater management decided to stage this play, and why, dammit?"
Pardon me for the strong language, and yes, I am well aware of the dismal condition of the national theater. While its white, shiny, square, and renovated home looks out onto the housing protest's tent camp on Rothschild Boulevard, in recent years the theater company has itself been staging plays at provisional venues, paying high rent, and performing in an insecure atmosphere. By now it is clear that Habima will not return to the renovated building in September. Besides, like the tent dwellers, it cannot make it through the year, the month, or even the week with a balanced budget. Its overdraft has delved deeper than the depths of the ocean. Though its management has gained the trust of a new public board, that trust is conditional, until the company returns to its home base.
Still, I find it difficult to be tolerant and understanding about the decision to invest creative powers, as well as financial resources, talent and skills, in a run-of-the-mill English play, though it did garner success when presented at the Royal Court Theatre in London, in collaboration with the Out of Joint theater company, headed by Max Stafford-Clark. The latter, besides his numerous achievements in the development of original English drama (he was director of the Royal Court, where, over 50 years ago, John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger" was produced, changing the history of modern theater ), is also the spouse of "Monogamy" playwright Feehily (not an irrelevant fact in this case ).
Ostensibly the play is full of subjects potentially interesting in any society and for any viewer. One of these is almost explicitly presented as the play's theme, and the director, who is also the lead actor, does not conceal the fact that this is what drew him to the play. That theme is the fate of a foreign correspondent who finds himself in a world where "absolute" horrors are committed, horrors that have nothing to do with his personal life (i.e. Darfur rather than Gaza ) and is filled with a desire to report them to the world so that the world may take notice of the horrific events. What motivates him, in fact, is not humanism per se, but rather the need to escape, by caring for "humanity," from confronting his own personal problems as a man and a husband.Just an excuse
Since the play is English, but the production moved the events to Israel, we should say that such figures are not absent from the Israeli milieu: The veteran journalist Ron Ben-Yishai, and, from the younger generation, Itai Engel, are prepared to follow their journalistic instinct anywhere in the world. A recent book by Yael Lavie, "War Producer," also addresses precisely this subject, especially the posttraumatic disorder that erupts in response to contact with "difficult" materials, and the feeling that no one besides her is interested.
The play's program includes an interview conducted by the playwright with a foreign correspondent, as proof of her research on the subject. The problem is that the play does not really address this worthy issue. Its real theme is couple relationships. That is, the havoc the correspondent's job wreaks on his relationship with his family, mainly with his wife - a no-less-worthy theme, except that it concerns not only foreign correspondents. It concerns us all. Whoever doesn't experience problems in a relationship, does not have a relationship. Relationship means problems, and the solution - if there is one - is the relationship itself. His being a foreign correspondent is just an excuse.
If the theme is relationships, specifically those of a certain social class - the "in" class, that of the news reporters, the actors, the photographers, the producers - then there are much better plays than this rather hurried, rather superficial, and substantially chattery work. For example, "Closer" by Patrick Marber, whose protagonists are a female photographer coupled with a writer-journalist, and a physician coupled with a mystery woman. The problem with Feehily's play is that what she has to say about intimate relationships is superficial, going no further than the sexual dimension.
The main point is that the individuals Feehily creates onstage are not interesting enough as people. And even if Heuberger is right in saying that the play is about narcissism, about people too self-involved to perceive those who share their lives, "Monogamy" did not convince me that they are interesting enough for me to concern myself with their relationships for an entire evening, and to draw conclusions about my own relationship. This might perhaps have happened, had the actors created stage presences that could transcend the characters' superficial banality. Though the characters of the correspondent and his betrayed wife do have some real "flesh," the actress, the photographer and the TV producer all lack depth, and are seemingly made of cardboard as sidekicks of the main plot.
Not that depth is entirely missing: Osnat Fishman is an excellent actress, and the character of the betrayed wife who undergoes a metamorphosis certainly does arouse interest (though the salvation she finds in sex and production seems horridly superficial ). But that is precisely the source of frustration: You look at her onstage and say to yourself, "How many years has she been working on the professional stage? How many roles worthy of her talent has she performed? (Quite a few. ) But how much more does she have in her, for us to enjoy? Why should her personality, body and soul, be wasted on this?"
Now we return to my first question, regarding Habima's repertoire policy. Even if we take its difficulties into account, and ignore its "national" status, it is not too much to expect it to present the highest professional level, and to create a high standard for itself and for the Israeli theater world. Heuberger explains, in an interview included in the program, that this play "seemed like a worthy thing to do" after "The Seagull," which he directed and in which he performed a leading role. He also says that "The Seagull," which was well-received by the critics (myself included ), was not a commercial success, partly because we are undergoing a "cultural retreat."
What seems strange to me is that Heuberger does not see the connection between plays like "Monogamy" and the cultural retreat that caused "The Seagull" to fail commercially. And when he proclaims that "everything is a soap opera: the Bible, Greek tragedy, all of Shakespeare's plays," I think to myself, fine, but the main difference - as in relationships - is not the "what," but rather the "how": the style of production, the quality of the message regarding the encounter between the sexes (which does not always have to do with sex, or with sex only ) and its complexity. And each time you deal with something that does not attempt to arrive at complex messages, you make us retreat even further, culturally.Simple naturalness
But the most disturbing issue here is not the fact that this is what Heuberger thinks, at least according to the program interview, though I'm sure that in conversation he sees farther and understands more. What is disturbing is that Heuberger liked a play, and that was enough for the Habima decision makers to produce it, and to place the direction and the lead role in his hands.
Not that I think it is far-fetched for an artistic director to base a repertoire policy on the actors and directors he believes in. But Heuberger, for all his talent, skill and experience has yet to prove himself worthy, in my view, of such thoroughgoing trust. True, he can pull a production through to a premiere and it will run. True, as an actor he displays a simple naturalness, and in rare instances can show the sense of danger vital for a great actor. Yet up till now he has mostly worked in realistic genres, with artistic messages that perhaps contained a degree of psychological depth ("Scenes from a Married Life" ), but he is hardly experienced enough in dealing with "style," even in what seems simple, like Chekhov, who is in fact extremely complex. Though his production of "The Seagull" had some fine moments, he failed there, for example, in the casting of Nina and Kostia. And contrary to what he says in the program, there is all the difference in the world between Nina and Kostia, and Adam and Maya (the protagonists of "Monogamy" ). And it is disturbing when he says, as an actor and director, that "for the kind of plays I choose special preparations are unnecessary ... I've been living in the world for 47-and-a-half years." Here is where the responsibility of an artistic director, at Habima or at any other theater, comes into play. When Rami Heuberger came to Habima's artistic director Ilan Ronen and said: "Let's do 'Monogamy,' because I feel like it," Ronen should have said: "Listen, I think that as an actor, you should first gain experience in '' and in '' [I intentionally didn't write anything specific; I'm not paid the salary of an artistic director], because I might also 'feel like' doing this play, but I think it is more important to stage ''."
Why? Because if Heuberger proposes more "Monogamies" he will continue to be a narcissistic actor and director interested only in himself and the problems of his own world, and will not be made to broaden his horizons and thereby become a more complex person and artist. He will go on producing more plays and performing more roles that make no difference, to himself or to us. Whereas if he tackles, say, Shakespeare, there is a chance - no, not a certainty - that that will happen.
And why else am I worried? Because it's already been announced that next season Heuberger is supposed to direct "Richard III" and to play the lead role. I suppose that's been agreed with Ilan Ronen. Although Heuberger did play Claudius early in his career, he has yet to perform classical roles, specifically Shakespearean ones. Nor does he have experience in directing "classical" plays. Kevin Spacey, who has acted in a number of Shakespeare productions (I've seen him as Richard II and now he is playing Richard III ), works with a director (right now, it is Sam Mendes ); and Ian McKellen was directed by Richard Eyre when he played in "Richard III" over 10 years ago. Whereas here in Israel, in our national theater, Heuberger is supposed to act and direct himself in this role? True, we do not have a surplus of great or even middling directors, but I'm sure that having another professional eye would do him no harm, even if he is the greatest Israeli actor at present. I wish us both luck.
Yes, I know that none of this holds any interest for the ordinary theatergoer. I'm not sure that the small betrayals and the even smaller sexual encounters of Maya (Riki Blich ) and Adam (Amnon Wolf ), Nir (Heuberger ) and Miki (Osnat Fishman ) are more interesting. But then, what do I know about relationships? Or the theater?