Looking for Israel's Laurence Olivier

Sir Laurence was the model of the theatrical actor-manager; is the Cameri's Itay Tiran interested in the challenge?

Two plays by William Shakespeare centering on a king called Richard are on at the same theater (the Cameri ) directed by the same director (Arthur Kogan ) and performed by the same cast with the same actor in the leading role (Itay Tiran ). This has led me to talk with a number of theater and culture lovers, some of whom I met in the audience of the two premieres, about this project and about Shakespeare in general.

In the nature of things, in a conversation with a colleague at the newspaper, Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) came up. One of the greatest English-speaking actors of the 20th century, among his many accomplishments was the successful transmission of Shakespeare on film in a trilogy he directed and in which he acted the leading roles: "Henry V" (1944; an Oscar nomination for best actor), "Hamlet" (1948; an Oscar for best actor and best film) and "Richard III" (1955; an Oscar nomination for best actor). Olivier never played Richard II.

In that same conversation, my colleague told me that on YouTube it is possible to watch a television interview with Olivier - a kind of personal retrospective - conducted by theater critic Kenneth Tynan in 1966. That was around the time of the establishment of the English National Theater under Olivier's management, and the interview was conducted on the stage of the Old Vic Theater in London, the theater's home at that time. Tynan, who until the start of the 1960s was the theater critic for The Observer, offered his services as a consultant to Olivier when he heard the actor had taken upon himself the task of establishing a national theater. The interview is remarkable in several respects, because Tynan and Olivier knew very well how to steer the conversation between the personal - Olivier's artistic path - and the general - observations applicable to all theatrical life everywhere.

When Tynan asks Olivier what kind of actor he wanted to be when he started out, Olivier describes two possible paths: The one was to win standing as a professional actor in a commercial theater and to work sequentially on a series of roles, not necessarily significant ones, not necessarily in important works, and to earn a weekly salary that goes up over time and ensures a decent living. The other path, which Olivier felt himself destined to follow, was to grapple with leading roles in classical plays. (Shakespeare was a name that wasn't mentioned, but clearly that was the intention. ) Olivier admits that his ambitions were directed at the second of these paths but in the knowledge that he would be able to do this only if he was very successful in the first of them.

And then, almost abstractedly, Olivier says his ambitions were to a large extent derived from the theatrical life of his day, when the height of ambition for an actor with aspirations to greatness - and Olivier does not for a moment disguise his ambition - was to be an "actor-manager." Olivier explains that this means, quite simply, that the actor is his own boss: He chooses the repertoire, the cast, the director (if he needs one ) and the roles he plays.

Later in the interview Olivier makes it clear that he isn't referring to a cast for a single production, but rather to a permanent troupe gathered around the one actor (and in fact chosen by him ) for collaborative work over time.

At the time Olivier began his artistic activity, this was nearly the only kind of framework for doing "artistic" work in the English theater. Publicly subsidized repertory companies did not yet exist - both the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theater were founded in the 1960s - so theatrical life was in the hands of commercial impresarios and actor-managers.

This is an interesting point in the historical development of contemporary theater as an artistic institution, mainly in England: From a situation in which the artistic activity of the theater was carried out by constantly touring troupes and managed by an actor, usually a man - Ida Kaminska of the Yiddish theater was one of he few examples of an actress-manager - to a situation in which theaters receive a kind of economic subsidy (from private patrons, princes or the state in Germany and Russia ) and are usually managed by directors rather than actors.

Olivier was indeed the last of the 20th-century actor-managers in his role as founder and first manager of the National Theater. Tynan stresses that Olivier was not only the manager but also the leading actor, the director when necessary and the administrative director. He asks how Olivier manages with this load. Olivier responds that he feels he directs as much as he wants to and acts as much as he wants to. (At that time he was playing, among other roles, Othello in a production filmed for a movie that had not yet been shown; Tynan and Olivier watch an extract from it and Olivier talks about his work on the character. ) Olivier also admits, with immodest frankness, that when he looked around, he thought he had the right qualities to direct the National Theater - "the fellow with the best sort of experiences to get the thing going."

Relinquishing the ego

This led me to think about the short history (though longer than in England's experience ) of the established, state-supported Israeli theater and the actors' place in its management. Habima was founded as an actors' collective, and at its inception was shaped by the vision of a director (Yevgeny Vakhtangov ). Habima's essence as a collective of actors proved a disadvantage for many years. When it became possible, an actor who had the ambitions and the ego of a manager - Shimon Finkel - took upon himself the task for which none of his colleagues was eager.

The Cameri Theater was founded by a group of actors, but the director among them (Yosef Milo ) was its clear leader who also directed many of the productions. True, he also acted from time to time - as Romeo to Orna Porat's Juliet at the Cameri and also Richard III at the Haifa Theater, which he managed, in a production he recreated later at the Ohel Theater. Porat, an actress who for many years was a member of the Cameri Theater, realized her managerial abilities in the theater for children and youth she established, where she no longer acted.

In the 1970s, theater management in Israel began to pass into the hands of professional managers not necessarily trained in the arts, and stage directors. Oded Kotler did start out as an actor at the Cameri Theater; he was selected to play Hamlet but gave up the role, and won a prize at Cannes for his acting in the film "Three Days and a Child." But from the moment he began managing the Haifa Theater, he reduced his work as an actor to a minimum, and the bulk of his contribution to the Israeli theater has been as a manager, even more than as a director. Only in his few recent breaks from managing did Kotler return to acting (in "The History Boys" and "The Banality of Love" ).

Here it must be stressed that an actor who takes on a management role has to know how to maneuver between his ambitions as an actor in leading roles, and the ability to give the stage to others; between the ego needed for leading an ensemble on the stage, and the ability to "lead from behind" and get past this profession's ego trips for the sake of the art. Few actors are endowed with these qualities and there are those - I am assuming this is the case with Kotler - who know how to tamp down their actor's ego for the sake of what they see to be the greater goal.

In the generation after Kotler, two actors assumed the management of theaters; both of them took their first steps as actors at the Be'er Sheva Theater at the start of the 1970s. Doron Tavori managed the Haifa Theater for a short time, while Natan Datner served for six years as manager of the Be'er Sheva Theater. Having known both of them as actors and also on the basis of conversations offstage, I can say with certainty that Tavori aspired to a career of the second type mentioned by Olivier, the ambitious, classical type. After all, it is not by chance that during his brief stint as manager of the Haifa Theater he played the leading male role in John Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi."

Datner has played many roles and there is no doubt that in the public mind his popularity is greater than Tavori's but - also due to the nature of the theater - his period as manager of the Be'er Sheva Theater was less ambitious. One of the plays he appeared in was Neil Simon's "Last of the Red Hot Lovers." I doubt Olivier would have bothered to act in that play.

Getting back to the Cameri productions of the Richards, Itay Tiran, among the current generation of actors, looks to me most like the material from which theater or troupe managers are made. I don't know whether the idea interests him at all, but when I look at his artistic choices until now - the roles he has played and the roles he has had the luck to be asked by the Cameri to play - the way he has shaped his performances and his interest in directing and adaptation all indicate a personality that might find interesting expression in management. Regrettably, in the current public and political Israeli atmosphere, in which people's worth is judged by where they served in the army, this does not look like a practical likelihood, which is a pity.

Forgot to limp

Getting back to the interview with Olivier, it is amazing to hear him tell how he played Richard III in 1944, shaping the character from the outside in. (He based the character of the king on American theater director Jed Harris, whom he calls "the most loathsome man I'd ever met." ) Olivier tells Tynan that even though he was then coming off the huge success of the film of "Henry V," he and the entire ensemble of Richard III were sure that the production was a failure. However. the day after the success of the premiere, he was so certain he had the audience in the palm of his hand that he came on stage and forgot to limp.

Toward the end of the interview Olivier says that as a theater manager he thinks the most important thing is to work in a troupe, with a permanent group of actors. Before founding the National Theater, he says: "I had, in smaller ways than this, formed companies before, and next to directing a film - which I'm sorry to have to say is the most exciting thing I've ever done - I think forming a company, helping it along, serving it, leading it, if you like, is the most exciting thing a man can do."

When Tynan asks Olivier what sort of actors he would like to have working with him at the National Theater, he replies: "Very good ones - versatile ones, people who had their heart in the right place about it. Unlazy ones. Deeply enthusiastic, courageous - gifted with all sorts of attributes. I must say that the nature of the work, as I said before, does demand, not physical perfection, but physical prowess."

It is interesting that in England, too, actor-managers are out of the ordinary. The most striking example is a star American actor in London, Kevin Spacey, manager of the Old Vic Theater. The ensemble at the Old Vic is not permanent and the theater exists largely without public subsidy. In recent years Spacey has played - not under his own direction - Richard II and Richard III.