Stage Animal / A landmark in Israeli theater
Cameri gambles with 'Richard II' and 'Richard III' - and wins.
It was and still is a very big bet, and for a considerable part of the house, by the Cameri Theater: to put on "Richard II" and "Richard III" on different nights in the Cameri 2 hall (419 seats ) - two plays by Shakespeare (classics, "elevated" language, complicated plots and characters not from here, each production two-and-a-half hours long without an intermission ), which require a large cast (20 actors, for most of whom roles must be found in both plays ) and with the two extremely different main roles, each of them a gem for any actor and an acting challenge at which it is honorable even to fail, played by the same actor: Itay Tiran.
The gamble has succeeded in a big way both "specifically," from the theatrical perspective, and "generally," from the perspective of Israeli culture. This project of the two Richards, directed by Arthur Kogan, is the essential and winning card in the public game about the necessity of massive subsidies for repertory theater in Israel. For plays produced at this level of involvement, depth and meticulousness, for the possibility that so many talented and experienced people can give their best, subsidized repertory theater exists.
This unusual project is not only a pair of good productions. It could become a landmark in the path of Israeli theater as part of Israeli culture.
True, theater has its entertainment aspects. But if theater is worth engaging in seriously to fulfill what this art is capable of giving its practitioners and its audience - no, not the audience but rather the viewers, all of whom taken together constitute a unique group with a cultural public - then this is how it must be: at this level, with this kind of involvement, with materials like these. Without concessions. And the culture-seeking audience has an obligation to justify this gamble.
How it all started
The first cards were played in this gamble more than 20 years ago. At the beginning of the 1980s, Omri Nitzan, who was then the artistic director of the Haifa Theater, commissioned Shimon Sandbank to translate "Richard II" with the thought that Doron Tavori would play the role. At the start of the 1990s, before taking up the position of artistic director of the Cameri (a position he has held since 1993; he has also directed the most Shakespeare of any Israeli director ) Nitzan commissioned Meir Wieseltier to translate "Richard III" for a production he directed at the Cameri, with Oded Teomi in the title role. At about this time Arthur Kogan had started directing and teaching at the Beit Zvi School for the Performing Arts in Ramat Gan.
In 1987 Gil Frank completed his studies at Beit Zvi. The great majority of the present cast at the Cameri are graduates of this acting school, and Frank is the senior alumnus. In the generation between Tavori and Tiran, Frank is the most outstanding. While still at the school he played Hamlet; in addition to the rehearsals and the roles he is playing at the Cameri, he continues to play Claudius opposite Tiran's Hamlet in Nitzan's production. In this project, Frank is performing only in "Richard II" - in the role of Bolingbroke - and his presence on stage affords the production an essential emotional focus.
Both Sandbank's translation of "Richard II" and Wieseltier's of "Richard III" are admirable in the way they deal with the language and quality of the originals, and in their faithfulness to and meticulousness about the formal aspects. Neither of them take shortcuts or make concessions to spoken Hebrew. However, it seems to me that Wieseltier's translation is far more considerate of the actor's mouth (and understanding ) and the audience's ears (and understanding ). Therefore nearly all the actors in "Richard III" sound clear and understandable. In "Richard II," those who speak well are more successful, and this underlines their colleagues' limitations.
Frank, who is blessed with both a rich voice and the ability to emphasize the words and load them with deep feeling while modulating it wisely, illustrates one of Kogan's achievements as a director. "Richard II" is usually considered a one-man play, the story of a king by God's grace who loses his crown and is forced to deal with his humanness. Without uprooting this element from the play (one, because that is impossible and two, because Tiran is there ), Kogan has made the play a political struggle between two men. He also reveals the excellent structure of the play, in which Bolingbroke comes across as a successful and mature ruler with a political and emotional understanding of the stumbling blocks of government over which Richard II falls in the play's first part. He also places Tiran opposite a partner who rescues him from the status of star, which has its charm but is also a trap. Thus the great tragedy about the king who to his astonishment is only a human being gets the political and human framework that puts the drama into context.
With the help of the designers (set by Eran Atzmon, costumes by Orna Smorgonsky and lighting by Yaakov Salib ), Kogan has created a single framework for both the productions. "Richard II' is performed in a gray box surrounding the stage on three sides with the possibility of performing on two levels, enabling the tumble from the heights of glory to the depths of the fall, here on steps with a railing; in "Richard III," Tiran as the crippled king tumbles down with hair-raising acrobatics. This box opens up and allows the projection of a cross on the floor of the stage. In both productions the boards of the stage are emphasized - this is always "theater." The audience has to create the royal court or the muddy battlefield in its imagination, by means of the words. In "Richard II" Kogan adds some more religious elements: a crown of thorns attached by the gardeners so it will hover over Richard's head in his final scene, or the "pieta" moment, in which Bolingbroke holds the corpse of Richard II across his knees as he sits on the throne and declares his intention to set out for the holy land on a pilgrimage.
In "Richard III" the network of scaffolding is covered in plastic sheeting. There is an image here of a mechanism of power and corruption, under a transparent cover that could tear at any moment. Nearly 200 years separate the settings of the two plays and Richard III is performed in modern-style clothing. Pistols are fired onstage in this production: Richard fires point blank at his wife Anne before the eyes of his noblemen at the moment when he orders them to "Rumor it abroad / That Anne, my wife, is sick and like to die."
It is clear that Kogan knows the plays very well and has arranged the texts very intelligently. The scene in which Richard shoots Anne, for example, is part of his tendency on the one hand to go to extremes and externalize the violence found in these plays in any case, and on the other hand to stylize it in a direction that to a large extent is comic with a kind of gallows humor. I can't say his store of ammunition here is to my taste. I think, for example, that the ridicule of the homosexual aspect in "Richard II" is excessive. There is a logic to playing the friendship between Richard and his advisers at the bathhouse (and it is definitely enjoyable to see Tiran, as well as Tal Weiss and Guy Allon, because the bodies are beautiful ) and I can accept the fact that they are speaking French (Richard's queen, pardon the pun, comes from France ). However, they do not need to be such sissies. In the play they are executed offstage. Here, Bolingbroke pulls off their pants and the soldiers stick their spears into the two exposed men (towards the back of the stage, not right in front of the audience, fortunately ).
In "Richard III" only Clarence (excellently played by Uri Ravitz, who also portrays Carlisle well in "Richard II" ) is murdered onstage. Kogan's production takes advantage of Eli Gorenstein's passion and flair for singing and playing an instrument. As James Tyrrel, Gorenstein is a mafioso bearing a boombox and when he commits the murders he blasts playback and sings opera. He plays the cello when he kills Buckingham (the excellent Dudu Niv, another actor who speaks well here and as the Duke of York in "Richard II," the essential third side whose .loyalty swings back and forth between the two kings ) and the bow is the weapon with which he slits his victims' throats. Here, in contrast to the matter of homosexuality in "Richard II," even if I am not altogether at ease with the idea, I must admit that the execution is tremendously effective.
I must fulfill a pleasant obligation to mention Helena Yaralova here as well. She plays Queen Isabel in "Richard II" and Queen Elizabeth in "Richard III." She is an actress of rare quality on the stage. She comes from a different language. When she is in dialogues with young Israeli actors, in a stylized text, this is no simple linguistic event; when she gets some living space in a text, as in the farewell scene in "Richard II" or the monologue in the second part of "Richard III," the acting experience is tremendous. Yossi Graber ennobles both productions with his presence as a kind of father figure who inspires admiration for the grace and sheer joy of his acting and his rare abilities, especially as John of Gaunt in "Richard II." He is also an enriching presence on stage as Edward IV and the mayor in "Richard III." The veteran Miriam Gavrieli brings a very meticulous and stylized presence in the role of the Duchess while the beautiful young Ruti Arsasai brings power and sensitivity to the role of Lady Anne and does a fine job in the conflict of temperaments onstage with Tiran as Richard III, who woos her.
This too is a scene in which the production goes to extremes, to the point of vulgarity, though I admit in a very effective way. At the end of the scene, Richard has his way with Anne literally on top of her husband's corpse, as the famous monologue - "Was ever woman in this humor woo'd? Was ever woman in this humor won?" (which is usually delivered after Lady Anne has exited the stage ) - is punctuated with Tiran's pelvic thrusts between Arsasai's legs on the way to his climax.
Also bringing a special quality to these productions is Alon Dahan as Hastings in "Richard III" and Mowbray in "Richard II." Gil Alon contributed a great deal not only in his acting but also in the movement design (the banquet and excellent dream scene in "Richard III," as did Gil Weinberg. who designed the stage fight scenes, which are especially impressive in "Richard III." )
Which brings us to the person around whom this project, with all its qualities and uniqueness, revolves: Itay Tiran. The two Richards are very different roles and not every great actor has the desire and abilities to perform them both, certainly not in the same week. Laurence Olivier never played Richard II and was monstrous and wonderful as Richard III on stage and in the movie. Ian McKellen played Richard II in 1971 and Richard III 20 years later (with a cast from the Royal National Theater, which was doing "Richard III" - and which was made as a movie in 1995 - together with "King Lear," in which McKellen played Kent ).
It seems Tiran is at that stage in his career where another role, however great, is routine and taken for granted. Perhaps also in play here was the theater's desire not to put on another play but rather to take on a "project," for if the point was to gamble, then gamble big. Moreover, while doing rehearsals for the two Richard plays, which were held every day for both of them, he is continuing to play Hamlet, as well as the Master of Ceremonies in "Cabaret."
The two Richard plays and the two roles enable Tiran to display the breadth of his talent and his ability and in each of the plays he serves up a double portion: a character with a certain appearance in the first half and a sharp and surprising change in the second.
Stunning glamour boy
In the first part of "Richard II" he is a wonderfully handsome young playboy, with long blond curls, moods and moments of weakness, but all in all a stunning glamour boy. In the second part he plunges into a realm where he has accustomed us to encountering him, mainly in "Hamlet:" painful psychological distress, philosophical musings, the ability to deliver a poetic monologue in an auditorium full of spectators as though he were talking only to himself, and touching every spectator's soul. It is impossible to be angry at this character when Tiran plays him. One can only feel the pain of his fall.
If, as Richard II, Tiran has built on his natural qualities, as Richard III he intentionally exaggerates and takes things to extremes, as though telling the audience: "I can also do this." And even if there is an element of ostentation here, what can you do? Indeed he can. His right leg is in a brace that does not allow him to bend it. His upper body is encased in a brace of hard plastic. He is pale, with a black wig and he is almost a villain from a comic horror film. He plays a kind of stand-up comedian who is a caricature of himself. A Richard Horror Show. Kogan has also added to the play a frame that is not written in the text, which gives an unsurprising explanation for Richard's villainy. In the first, silent scene a boy and a girl abuse their playmate, a crippled boy, as they frolic on a rocking horse. During the course of the play Richard/Tiran insists on obtaining the blessing of his mother (Miriam Gavrieli ), who insists on cursing him. When Richard is already lying dead on the stage at the end of the play, the child with the braces on his legs comes along and places a rocking horse at the head of the dead king. Indeed, he has won a horse and lost the kingdom.
One last thing: Most of the elements in this project, at every level and especially the human level, have in one way or another had close contact with the figure of Gary Bilu, of blessed memory, who ran Beit Zvi for a quarter of a century and was a teacher and sometimes much more than a teacher. To a large extent these productions are an embodiment of a theatrical legacy as he wanted it. They are a kind of monument in his memory, fittingly on the stage. The plays are not dedicated to his memory in the program. This article is.