Israeli Society Through Shakespeare's Eyes

'I allowed myself to 'Israelize' the play,' says director Udi Ben Moshe about his adaptation of 'The Merry Wives of Windsor.'

Yossi Zwecker

Theater director Udi Ben Moshe has reached a stage in his career in which he’s allowing himself to be brave. But really brave. How else would you account for the fact that he’s chosen to revise a play by none other than William Shakespeare? By “revise,” I mean eliminating one of the characters completely, giving another more possibilities of movement, and lending the play an Israeli thrust. “The situation in which the women are mischievous and get along as they do with the men, while the men are dunces and get along as they do with the women, is a conservative one in which everyone is ostensibly happy,” Ben Moshe says. “The character in this version of the play doesn’t want to be part of the fixed pattern of marrying because it’s the thing to do, and the sooner the better. Possibly that can generate a new, or at least a refreshing perspective. We’ll know soon enough if it can work. Maybe it’s all in my head.”

In fact, the final dress rehearsal of the play Ben Moshe is referring to, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” was scheduled for the evening of the day on which we spoke – it would also be the first performance before an audience. A production of the Khan Theater in Jerusalem, the comedy was translated by the acclaimed playwright Nissim Aloni (1926-1998); it is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays and is not considered one of his major works.

Set in the court of the English king, the play centers on the beefy Sir John Falstaff (the same fellow who appears in the two parts of “Henry IV”). He sets out to court two women (both married) intensively. But the objects of his supposed affections, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, don’t keep the courtship a secret, and soon Windsor, which is populated by a bevy of peculiar, not to say off-the-wall types, is in an uproar. The plot revolves around the local ale house, where love schemes are hatched, acts of revenge devised and traps laid.

Ben Moshe, returning to his home base of the Khan after a year of directing for the Tel Aviv-based Cameri and Beit Lessin theaters, is delighted to be back. “It’s a pleasure to work here,” he says. “The feeling when you get here is that the whole theater, not only the actors, is mobilized for the production. It’s a celebratory feeling.”

There was nothing offhand behind the unusual decision to mount a production of one of Shakespeare’s minor plays. “We wanted a large-scale comedy to open the season with, and we were looking for good roles for women,” Ben Moshe explains. “It’s usually the men who are at the forefront in Shakespeare, and in theater as a whole. This is one of the rare plays that has wonderful parts for women.”

What did you emphasize in your adaptation?

Yossi Zwecker

“I allowed myself leeway to ‘Israelize’ the play, while also preserving its Englishness. I’ve invented an entity that is rather Israeli-like, maybe in the style of Betar fans [referring to Jerusalem’s rowdy soccer crowd], yet still maintains the original English essence. For example, the characters sing in English. I hope the audience will accept this.”

Do you think the audience might not like the changes?

“I live with constant anxiety – but that’s the profession, you know. That’s what is so terrific about it. The play has a run, and even if all goes well the run ends after a year or a year and a half. So we’ll have something that existed and then no longer exists – it’s become a memory. Directing a play is a little like having short affairs, in contrast to a stable marriage: you are constantly falling in love anew, and then breaking up anew. Nissim Aloni called it a ‘medicine against a sense of death,’ because what you’re doing is recreating a certain reality and thereby doing battle against the sense of death.

“Death, from his perspective, is a thing that keeps recurring and lures you,” he continues. “That makes me a very anxious person, I admit. And it doesn’t pass, either – it just gets worse and worse. I never have the feeling that, ‘Hey, I know this job.’ No, it’s something new each time. And I also take on projects that challenge me. This particular play is a piece of work – no one goes near this kind of thing.”

Drinking buddies

In his trademark fashion, Ben Moshe has chosen to import the play into the contemporary Israeli situation. “The women in the play are naughty, smart and funny, and the men are eight childish, macho idiots,” Ben Moshe says. “The result is that the women twist them around their little fingers. In some sort of way, this division is spot-on about us, about Israeli society. There’s something in Israeli masculinity that is very much like this. We [males] tend to quarrel in a second, to have a very short fuse; we have a minimal ability to restrain ourselves and show good judgment. And the play, I discovered, is precisely about that.”

Elaborating, he says, “It’s a play about ‘the guys,’ a group of buddies who drink and curse and who take far more pleasure in macho camaraderie as such than in any ambition to conquer something or someone. What they are out to conquer is not the women, not the hill, but their own place in the group of guys.”

Do you speak from personal experience?

“I was never part of a group like that, not even in the army; I always had a friend or two, no more. So I am slightly compensating myself here – suddenly I have these eight guys and we’re going out for a drink together, as it were. I’m dealing somewhat with my own deprivations.”

How is the Khan different from Tel Aviv theater companies?

“In Tel Aviv you do countless productions; it can feel a bit like an assembly line. The Khan lets me come with an idea in my head and start to work. And I love the process with the actors. Miki Gurevitch [the Khan’s artistic director] has guts, and in fact the whole mentality here is gutsy. They insist on doing theater they like and not theater that must succeed. The fact that it does succeed is little short of miraculous.”

You started off as an actor. Is there any chance we’ll see you on the stage again?

“I don’t know. It’s scary. I envy the actors a little. But when I direct I realize my acting fantasies. The actors have a terrific time. They feel they can come back and court their loves every evening, as though this time maybe it will work, even though they know it won’t. It’s as though they can relive the experience. This is meaningful theater, which invites renewal, life – an hour and a half or two hours of life in very concentrated form.”