Grossman's 'See Under: Love' on Stage: A Hymn to the Power of Life and Love

There is an even more striking need to return to this novel today, when the memory of the Holocaust of European Jewry is being exploited to the hilt for political and national purposes.

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A scene from See Under: Love. Sublime poetry. Yossi ZweckerCredit: יוסי צבקר

David Grossman’s novel “See Under: Love,” which was published (in Hebrew) in 1986, was, and remains, a marvelously complex work. Not least because it showed readers that there are no subjects, however large, dense, painful and horrific, that are beyond the ability of a gifted artist to imbue with a new and different life. Today, when the memory of the Holocaust of European Jewry is being exploited to the hilt for political and national purposes, there is an even more striking need to return to this novel, which succeeded so brilliantly in inspiring its death- and terror-laden theme with – and extracting from it as well – sublime poetry, by virtue of life and love.

One’s initial attention is focused on the first part of the novel, specifically on the character of Momik, a boy who has to cope with his world, which is still under the threat of the “Nazi beast.” The stage adaptation by Lahav Timor (who also directed), which premiered last month at Beit Zvi Theater in Ramat Gan, skips over this section and concentrates instead on two other 
sections, which would seem to be immune to theatrical representation. They are, first, the relationship between the Nazi officer, Neigel, and the Jewish writer, Anshel Wasserman, who is incapable of dying (the focus here must deal with the palpability of this terror, which is almost impossible on the stage). The second is the lexicon from which the book derives its title, which tells the story of Kazik, a boy who undergoes a complete life cycle in a day – also seemingly anti-theatrical material because of its intellectual style.

Timor benefits from intelligent partners in the production. Roni Vilozni has designed a rather spare set, with flowers that rise from the fringes and walls for projecting letters of the alphabet and entries from the lexicon (video art by Yoav Roth). The music, by Eldad Lidor, and the lighting design, by Uri Rubinstein, help create crucial emphases. Ultimately, though, the play’s power stems from the stage situation in which Anshel Wasserman weaves an imaginary tale about love, life and salvation amid a reality of hate, death and perdition. Like Scheherazade in reverse (he tells stories in the hope of dying, she to keep on living), he intoxicates the Nazi officer with imagination, and is able to reach him.

Thus, despite the manifest achievement of adapting the novel for the stage, and the consistent, convincing visual concept, the test of the play resides in the acting. Maayan Kilchevsky is very impressive in the two female roles (the “love artist” Hannah Zeitrin and the 
officer’s wife), as is Chen Noher in the role of the madman Ilya Ginzburg, whose movements and stage presence resonate something of the “Nazi beast.” Uri Shilo rounds off the ensemble in a key episodic part.

Michael Koresh, as Wasserman, persuasively fills the stage with his warm character in both the tenderness of his behavior (though he can also be sharp and acerbic when need be) and his ability to inject credibility into his meticulously formulated texts. However, Yigael Sachs in the role of the Nazi officer – the most complex role in the production – looked and sounded to me as though he was carried away by the emotions with which the material is rife and let them dominate him to the point where his character falls apart. The result is that the entire delicate structure is somewhat unhinged.

Nevertheless, this play, with its implicit hymn to the power of life and love – and precisely in a situation in which such feelings could not arise – seems to me a most apt response to a reality in which we feel that Holocaust-memory capsules may soon be dissolved in our drinking water.

Thursday at 20.30, Beit Zvi Theater, Ramat Gan

Credit: יוסי צבקר