The protests leading up to Habima Theater’s performances at the Globe Theater in London on Monday – which will most likely continue during the show itself – have no apparent connection to the play itself, or its quality.
According to the protest organizers, Habima should not perform for theater enthusiasts around the world, because it put on a performance in the theater that was recently opened in Ariel, which is located in the occupied territories.
Only two out of over 1,000 performances by Habima last year took place in Ariel (there was no need to replace actors that refused to perform there for political reasons.) However, you can’t be a little bit pregnant. The protesters won’t be interested in the fact that due to a budget deficit of tens of millions of shekels, Israel’s national theater cannot afford to have a political stance.
The international theater community has another reason to protest Habima. Israel’s national theater owes – and isn’t paying – 160,000 dollars in royalties to American playwrights for using their work. Habima owes even higher sums to Israelis who have worked there. The Culture Ministry is “distressed that Habima is not fulfilling its obligations, which may harm Israel's image.”
The Culture Ministry statement read: “While the state fully supports Habima, it is an independent body, operating without any government intervention in the artistic or administrative fields.” Previously, Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat, as well as Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, have commented that the Habima, and other theaters, should most definitely perform in places like Ariel, and could lose government support if they refuse. They did not mention any damage to Israel's international image. .
Habima officials also aware of another thing, which should not bother the protesters: that if they refuse to perform in Ariel, they will be giving up on financial support from the government, and would have to cast their lot in with the public – and will be forced to close. I believe that Habima should not perform in Ariel, but a vocal sector of the Israeli public has a different opinion, and the quiet majority doesn’t care.
Habima will perform “The Merchant of Venice,” in Hebrew, at the Globe Theater on May 28 and 29. The play focuses on a Jew, fulfilling the anti-Semitic and stereotypical role of a money lender that plots to harm Christians, among which he lives as a persecuted minority.
The people of Venice view him and his profession as lowly and menial, and abuse him accordingly. Throughout the ages, and especially since the Holocaust, it has been impossible to view the Shakespearean classic only as a work of art, without delving into politics, well before the current protests.
The director, Ilan Ronen - whose presentation has been praised for its design, acting, and interpretation –added a new opening scene, in which young Venetians in masks degrade the Jew, stealing his yarmulke, tallit and tefillin, and beat him. Shakespeare is not the author of this image; reality is. It is legitimate to add such a scene based on the script itself, but in the framework of the rhetoric being heard on the world stage, the addition of such a scene is similar to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s use of the Holocaust to justify a possible Israeli strike on Iran.
In a certain sense, such an interpretation displays the modern Israeli hiding behind the Jew of old, very similar to Israeli politicians, who still invoke the Holocaust that happened and could happen again. Anyone opposing the play however, will find themselves ridiculing the Jew yet again, or protesting against his or her own reflections portrayed by the Venetians abusing Shylock.
If and when the Globe’s patrons are bothered during the course of the play, I suggest that the actors stand together, firmly face the audience, and recite Shylock’s monologue, in sign language:
“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
It won’t help. But it would be very impressive.
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