Review Who Decides Who's a False Witness?

The heart of the production is Etai Tiran, who plays the lead in an astounding and fascinating manner. He brims with latent energy, like a wound spring, and through his absolute control of voice, body and emotion, he lays out the philosophical arguments of the refusenik in a conformist society at war.

"Eye Witness," Cameri Theater. By Yehoshua Sobol. Director: Paulus Manker; Lighting: Max Keller.

According to the program, Yehoshua Sobol has to date written 46 plays, some of which have not even been staged in Israel. This is extraordinary productivity for 23 years of creative work. Sobol is considered, justifiably, and as he himself would say, to be a playwright who takes a clear position on domestic issues in the public, political and social agenda. Some of his writing is based on historic research of what happened in the dark days of the Holocaust of European Jewry, from which he derived his well-known, complex, controversial plays "Soul of a Jew" and "Ghetto." Nor is his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a secret, as evident in "The Palestinian Girl" and "The Jerusalem Syndrome."

Aware and involved members of the theater-going public who see Sobol's new play "Eye Witness" - one of his more mature and complete plays - can't help but be conscious of these facts. This time he tells a historic story: Franz Jaegerstatter was an Austrian citizen who served two years in the German army after the Anschluss (annexation of Austria), but refused to serve when called up for reserve duty in 1943. He was not alone: 10,000 draftees refused to enlist in the Wehrmacht, of which 5,000 were killed in concentrations camps and 1,600 were executed outright, including 515 who were beheaded. Jaegerstatter was one of them.

The play depicts his last day alive, as his friends, judges, priest, prison physician and family members voice all of the reasons not to refuse orders in a society at war. He deals with their arguments with a logic that is rooted in religious-Christian faith by saying that he is an eyewitness to the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime, as well as an eyewitness to their refusal to see the atrocities.

The production by Austrian director Paulus Manker, who has collaborated with Sobol for the past 15 years, is a monkish spectacle. In the rehearsal hall, in front of bare walls, the scenery consists of a pile of shoes that Jaegerstatter polishes on his last day alive, a hospital room, and pots that need to be scrubbed.

A young group of actors works as a superb ensemble, at astounding levels of energy and unnerving intimacy, which is partly a function of the proximity of spectator to stage. There are moments in which they design the drama as an extroverted caricature (in the court scene, for instance), but for the most part, they maintain an emotionally charged, sensitive, even amusing intimacy (as in the scene with the friends, which is wonderfully executed by Avivi Zemer and Yoav Levi), with sharp symbols (when Franz's wife - the talented young Adi Gilat - embraces him, she is holding the bread knife in her hand) and an ability to create concentration and quiet in which even the slightest murmur can be heard. The cast includes Tamar Keinan, Tehiya Danon and Oren Yedgar, each of whom makes a significant contribution to the production's power.

The heart of the production is Etai Tiran, who plays the lead in an astounding and fascinating manner. He brims with latent energy, like a wound spring, and through his absolute control of voice, body and emotion, he lays out the philosophical arguments of the refusenik in a conformist society at war. Much to his credit, the play maintains a deep emotional involvement in the fate of the individual.

The core of the philosophical argument is revealed in a conversation with the priest Juchman (Mordy Gershon, whose nonchalance is marvelous). Jaegerstatter states that he is an eyewitness, and that as far as he is concerned, anyone who is not like him and who knowingly distorts his testimony is a false witness. The priest argues that it is a disagreement between narratives, but Jaegerstatter believes in absolute facts. Later, the sentenced man - who is about to die because of his adherence to the principles of his religion - asks the priest, who begins to read Psalms at his side, to remain silent.

For the audience in Israel, Jaegerstatter's refusal to serve is clear and obvious. As far as we are concerned, it was the right thing to do; he could not have done otherwise; it would have been morally wrong for someone to join the herd that went, like obedient sheep, to slaughter and annihilate Jews. At the same time, it is almost impossible that the viewers will not be asking themselves if the play does not intend to draw analogy between here and there, then and now, and to touch on one of the most emotionally charged issues of all in the local public discourse.

Listening carefully to every word spoken on the stage, it is hard to find even the hint of an attempt to make this analogy. On the contrary, the play is extremely cautious: Sobol, Manker and the actors tell the story of a specific individual in a specific society. Nevertheless, the fact that the play was written and is being staged at this time in Israel naturally gives rise to the comparison to the refusal to serve in the Israeli army. It is likely that there will be those who argue that the comparison, which is wrong, flawed and harmful, is coerced on the viewer. In those terms, the power of the play lies in its "that's what you said" guise: the playwright is not responsible for the associations conjured in the mind of the intelligent viewer.

Associations of what it means to society when an individual refuses to perform military service must arise when people see this play - even if the comparison will be rejected, and vehemently so, and even if there is no doubt that in Jaegerstatter's situation, the refusal to serve was justified. The question will always remain: In every society, in every situation, who is the reliable eyewitness and who is the false witness? Is Sobol a false witness? Are the viewers of the play false witnesses? And if they aren't, when will we know? Who is to decide, history? Historians? Can we afford to wait for their verdict? And who said that theater has to furnish answers?