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Laurence Olivier performed "King Lear" twice. Once in the theater, in 1946, at the height of his powerful career, but before he had won the crown as the greatest actor of the 20th century, and the second time on television, in 1983, when he was 76, ill and exhausted. In his book "On Acting," he wrote about the role: "When you've the strength for it, you're too young; when you've the age, you're too old."

If Olivier were living here in Israel, he would (almost) be able to repeat that sequence: The last time "King Lear" was performed in Hebrew was in 1955 at Habimah, in Avraham Shlonsky's translation, with Aharon Meskin in the role of the king (and, as usual, with Shimon Finkel, who only once let Meskin play a Shakespearean role alone, sharing the role with him). As the years passed and actors of the right age blocked one another's way, the play and the role acquired mythical dimensions that aroused impossible expectations.

Now at long last it has happened - at the Cameri Theater, with Yossi Pollack in the title role. And so that this wouldn't be just another "routine" Shakespeare production (which is also an illusion; despite the phenomenal success of "Hamlet" at the Cameri, Shakespeare is a pretty rare guest on our local stages), it was decided to bring in a special director, Robert Sturua, a Georgian. He has directed in Israel twice before - "Tartuffe" at Habimah and Hanoch Levine's "Openmouthed" at the Cameri; two very interesting productions, which did not succeed. It was clear in advance that Sturua would not direct the play "by the book," to the extent that there is such a thing. He is a director who puts his seal on a play and creates a production that uses the text, the stage and the actors.

Unfamiliar experience

Sturua's interpretation is characteristic of directors of a certain age from Eastern Europe. They direct from within a life experience of transition from an effective and oppressive tyrannical regime to utter chaos, where what rules is evil for the sake of evil. This is an experience with which we, who have grown up in a democratic country, are not familiar. In his version, Lear wants to divest himself of responsibility and keep the authority. He discovers that this an impossible mission: What he has succeeded in creating in his despotic rule is a society devoid of values, apart from destructive power. The cogs of the governing mechanism, whose steering wheel he seeks to abandon, know only how to crush - and first and foremost, they crush him.

This issue of authority and responsibility is always interesting; in our democratic experience we are accustomed to seeing people who thought they possessed both these elements, and then they realize that they do not have authority, but this does not exempt them from responsibility. However, people with authority who have failed declare, of course, that they take the responsibility upon themselves, which does not interfere with the fact that they remain in their positions. The problem with rule, in any regime, is that authority entails responsibility, while responsibility is not worth much without authority.

The design of the production derives from this approach. Sturua's "Lear" does not take place in a specific reality, but rather on a stage made up of a mishmash of styles in especially bad taste, which only a despotic regime that submits to every caprice can produce. As long as there is a personality that holds this framework in thrall, and is able to create a prolonged, nearly unbearable expectation for Lear's first appearance on the stage (a director needs courage for such a long stretch in which nothing happens) - it works. But when Lear relinquishes the responsibility, one of his daughters devotes herself to opera and painting, in an exaggerated parvenu way, and the other becomes a monster, in a series of exaggerated and mad poses.

Of course, for the sake of this interpretation Sturua mercilessly chops up the text, especially in the second part, which looks unfinished to me. The director is accustomed in his own theater, in a tradition that is also evident in Gesher Theater productions, to continue with rehearsals until the production is ready. This is not an acceptable custom in Western theater, where everything has a price. In any case the rehearsal process was unprecedentedly long, but nevertheless the second part of the play looks like no more than an initial sketch, in comparison to the first part in which there is momentum, in its insane style. It also seems as though Sturua does not particularly care that in this play, the good characters win in the end. The process itself interests him far more.

The king's battlefield

Now we come to the issue of the acting. It is my impression that Sturua is a director who places the external demands concerning a character's development before his actors and expects them to find the character's inner life. There are those who succeed in this: Shiri Golan in the role of Goneril, for example. As for Keren Mor, she is an actress who is capable of wild bursts of energy (and therefore is successful in the comical "Shorts" program on television). In the role of Regan, the younger daughter, she makes a series of distorted appearances that serve the director's vision, but there is no personality behind them that unites it all into an emotional sequence. Neta Garti, as Cordelia, brings to the play the characteristics that served her in the role of Ophelia in the current production of "Hamlet" at the Cameri: a kind of childish innocence and the charm of youth. But Cordelia is not Ophelia: This is a character who has a crystallized moral stance and a dimension of depth that Garti does not have (yet?).

In Sturua's perception Edmund, Gloucester's bastard son, could have been an ideal successor to Lear. It is not by chance that his father prefers him, despite his illegitimacy, to the legal heir Edgar, who is lazy, likable and naive. Oded Leopold, who plays Edmund, is the shining light in the production: focused, businesslike, effective, fluent. He knows where he is heading, he knows how to take advantage of opportunities and he does not hesitate to sacrifice the innocent in order to achieve his aims.

Edgar (Micha Selektar), Gloucester (Ohad Shahar, as the courtier who is forced to walk about in a woman's shoes, because the king and the director have commanded him to do so), Kent (Assaf Pariente) and Cordelia are "the good folks," who don't stand a chance in the chaos ruled by the villains after the despot divests himself of his responsibility. To tell the truth, Sturua is not all that interested in what will happen to them: A priori they are condemned to failure, because after the era of Lear, intentions and conscience are not determining factors, effectiveness is. And in this area the good fail, just like the bad - only the bad guys have greater destructive powers.

That leaves the battlefield to Lear himself. No matter how we look at it, he is a very unlikable type. Olivier wrote: "Frankly, Lear is an easy part, one of the easiest parts in Shakespeare apart from Coriolanus. We can all play it. It is simply bang straightforward." Not in Sturua's version. Yossi Pollack does not need to thunder against the noise of the storm, because there is no such noise. There are only theatrical effects by means of a row of flickering lanterns. Pollack, of course, is impressive in the first part, in displaying the caprices of the tyrant who abuses his subjects. His Fool - Rami Baruch on roller-blades in punk garb - is very charming, but there is no intimacy felt between him and the king. In the second part, Pollack devotes a lot of concentration to the pain of the quiet awakening, but nevertheless I found myself less moved by what was happening to him, and concentrated more on the question of why this production did not become the event it might have been.

Perhaps this is my problem, and perhaps this feeling stems from Pollack's attitude toward the role as going for broke and as sacrificing himself on the altar of the theater; to be Lear, instead of somehow keeping the eye of the actor open. Lear, after all, does not know that this is all a gamble, which will lead him to the painful summation of his life. He discovers that at the end, and it is a rude awakening.

Here is Olivier again: "The actor must keep an audience engaged by constant changes of inflections; he must keep them forward in their seats; he must have an acute sense of what is boring them when they are about to yawn or look at their watches, wondering when the interval is coming; he must know the instant he has lost their interest."

Insofar as it is possible to talk about the success or failure of a production, especially of a classic, on an Israeli stage, the result here is ambiguous. I think that the very fact of the production as such is a success, but it is not a success in the sense that it is impossible to sit through the play and not be very aware of its flaws, and they are many. Still, this is a fascinating production, and taking in its details is an emotional and intellectual experience in its own right. Indeed, that is a more complete and satisfying experience than many very enjoyable and less complex experiences in the theater.

I would certainly have preferred a thrilling "King Lear" that left me breathless as a spectator. But I would rather have this king, unsatisfying as he might be, than three "Brighton Beaches," four "Chapter Twos" and five "Miss Daisies."