At 75, Israeli Actor Gila Almagor May Have Found the Role of a Lifetime

The veteran Israeli actor has the enthusiasm of someone half her age when discussing new drama ‘Taken at Midnight,’ set in Nazi Germany. She says the play has clear implications for contemporary Israel.

Ilan Assayag

It has been nearly 30 years since the premiere of actor Gila Almagor’s one-woman show “Aviya’s Summer” (“HaKayitz Shel Aviya”), based on her own autobiographical novel. The show opened the very first annual Haifa International Children’s Theater Festival and Almagor has appeared in the play – inspired by her own tragic childhood – a number of times in Israel and around the world.

Last week, the play opened the Theatronetto Festival of one-person shows in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. (The festival was founded by Almagor’s husband, Yaakov Agmon, who is a former director of the Habima Theater.) It was also performed at the children’s festival in Haifa, in honor of the 25th anniversary of both festivals.

“What is Gila Almagor? It is a fiction. It is a name with a nice sound to it and all, but I am just Gila Alexandrowitz, the girl I always was,” said Almagor, speaking to Haaretz last week. “Before ‘Aviya’s Summer,’ I never wrote a single creative line and never touched on my personal story. It was really to start to live with it in peace, and also as a small personal miracle – the ability to suddenly say, ‘I am who I am.’ When I perform the play I don’t think, ‘Oy! This is my life!’”

The novel has been translated into many languages and was also adapted into an award-winning movie in 1988. It’s based on the story of Almagor’s childhood, growing up in Petah Tikva and dealing with her mother Chaya’s mental illness. Almagor’s father, Max Alexandrowitz, served in the British police force during the British Mandate era, but was murdered by an Arab sniper in Haifa, in 1939 – five months before Almagor was born.

The novel and play focus on Aviya, a 10-year-old girl who, in the summer of 1950, vacations with her mother in a small Israeli town. Aviya is forced to care for her Holocaust-surviving mother, deal with her outbursts and her abnormal image in the developing Israeli society.

“Aviya’s Summer” is an exceptional moment in Almagor’s rich career (the 75-year-old was the recipient of the Israel Prize for cinema in 2004). Her play is special not just because it is a one-woman show and also autobiographical, but because it is aimed at children and teenagers, an audience that Almagor is not especially associated with. That said, she is fondly remembered for her performances as Israel’s first Peter Pan in a major production in Haifa, exactly 50 years ago, and in Yehuda Atlas’ “It’s Me!”

Almagor recently played the title character in Jacob Gordin’s “Mirele Efros,” which Habima Theater staged under the direction of Hanan Snir. She is also incredibly excited about the upcoming production of new play “Taken at Midnight,” by British playwright Mark Hayhurst.

The drama tells the true story of Jewish-German lawyer Hans Litten, a young prosecutor who subpoenaed Adolf Hitler to the witness stand in 1931 to testify in a trial of four murderous SA men (the original paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party). Hitler never forgot the experience: On the night of the Reichstag fire in February 1933, Litten was arrested, along with more than 4,000 social democrats and communists. He was tortured, sent to the Sonnenburg and Buchenwald concentration camps, and later to Dachau, where he committed suicide in 1938.

The acclaimed play, which premiered at the Chichester Festival Theater last October and transferred to London’s West End earlier this year, was nominated for three Olivier Awards (Penelope Wilton won the Best Actress award for her performance, in the role Almagor will play in Israel). Dori Parnas translated the play into Hebrew, with Moshe Kaftan directing. Its Israeli premiere will be at Habima, starting at the end of May.

Under attack

Almagor first read “Taken at Midnight” last summer, during the period around Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. At the time, she herself was under attack following an opinion piece she penned for Yedioth Ahronoth titled, “I am embarrassed to be Israeli.” In the piece she wrote about the murder of the Palestinian youth Mohammed Abu Khdeir in Jerusalem: “To burn a child alive? It is an embarrassment to be Israeli in such times.” The article elicited a harsh response, and even threats.

“For a long time I haven’t been so excited after reading a play, because of its power and expression,” she says now. “The message of anti-Fascism – the fear that [Fascism] could run wild in the streets, in any street, suddenly, even with the most cultured people. Suddenly this play arrives, and you see what they did to Yehonatan Geffen, to Achinoam Nini, to Mira Awad [all recently threatened or assaulted by other Israelis for holding left-wing views] and to me. We went through those things, and why? For what? What? I said to burn a child alive is an ‘act the Devil has not created,’ and that I was embarrassed. Someone can tell me that it’s a proper act? That it isn’t the worst act?”

So what is the alternative? To express yourself through art?

“It is a great privilege that, in the art I have served all my life, I can stand on the stage and say: ‘In return for a ticket, come, remove the mask and see.’ It was there, in horrible Nazi Germany – and we all know the result of that. We know how it started and how it ended ... and that happened in the cradle of civilization! The rehearsals for the play are just starting, and I have not arrived so hungry in a long time.”

Is it still possible to educate an audience today?

“Yes. I have stopped performances a few times. I played Medea in Jerusalem and, just before I murder the children, in the farewell scene from them, suddenly a cell phone was heard and someone in the audience said, ‘Lady, turn off the phone!’ Many times when that happens, we don’t move. I used to say to the actors, ‘If there’s a phone [ringing], you don’t move – until they understand.’ What is it? [Elsewhere in] the world you never hear it, since many places have electronic shields that prevent reception. But in Israel it is impossible, for reasons of safety and security. But enough! For too many years we have this trouble. It’s an embarrassment.”

After playing so many powerful and extrovert characters in recent years – such as Mirele Efros and, before that, the famous billionaire Claire Zachanassian in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s “The Visit” – Almagor felt that the role of Hans Litten’s mother, Irmgard, provided her with a new acting challenge.

Insufferable horror

“[Irmgard] is very collected,” explains Almagor. “She does not have a single outburst, at a time when she has this urge to blow up the entire world. There is something restrained in her; everything is contained. She has none of the energy and nerves that I [usually] bring. I’m not giving up on it, but it is kept inside. She says that when the memory is erased and only history is left, the word Sonnenburg will be enough to describe the size of the insufferable horror of this Nazi regime.

“There is also a technique in the play where [the character] directly addresses the audience – like in ‘House of Cards’ where [Kevin Spacey] speaks to the camera, or in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III.’”

Do you think it’s effective?

“It’s wonderful. The play is built from these monologues to the audience and from [standard] scenes with dialogue. It starts when she [Irmgard] says, ‘When I heard the Reichstag was burning, my breath was taken away.’ And slowly the story of Hans and his mother links up and moves to the prison. It is written with such power that the harshness, violence and abuse are directed against these men.”

Can a play with such a powerful and clear statement still reverberate today and arouse a debate?

“Maybe. And if that happens, then it is good. After all, it is virtual. People sit in the theater and understand that it is corresponding with something contemporary and scary: Look at us, come see how not to let it end this way. At the end of the play, Irmgard says she is leaving Germany and that England is accepting her. But she knows that in another few months, new prisoners will arrive at Dachau. She is already talking about the Dachau of the Holocaust, and we know how it started.”