Israeli Rendition of a Classic Shakespeare Play Is Perfect. That's the Problem

'The Merry Wives of Windsor' has a larger-than-life figure, Hebrew translation by an iconic playwright, and laughs galore. But our critic was left asking: Why must it be?

Yossi Zwecker

On paper, the choice of a play is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success in the theater. And who’s going to complain about a theater that stages Shakespeare? Certainly not the likes of me. Granted, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” isn’t the Shakespearean Everest, but we’re still in the Himalayas. After all, this is the play that was written especially for the clownish knight, as compensation for his being ejected from the life of Prince Hal, whom he had tutored in life’s pleasures, when Hal became Henry V. It’s true as well that this is a physical – almost a bedroom – farce; but still, it’s Shakespeare, and there’s Falstaff, and the Hebrew translation is by the iconic playwright Nissim Aloni.

Nevertheless, one question bothered me throughout the whole production, directed by Udi Ben Moshe, in Jerusalem’s Khan Theater: Why are they staging it? What in this material is meant to interest me, not as a critic, but as a human being? The fact is that I love Shakespeare – and maybe today I’m a bit of a Falstaff figure myself? No, I was never an amusing rake and anarchist like him, but I, too, like him, am getting older and falling apart, and I know that my time has passed and that the world around no longer needs me and laughs at me behind my back (and in my face), even if I delude myself into believing that it’s laughing with me.

None of these questions seem to occupy Ben Moshe. The plot, as is now de rigueur with Shakespearean comedies, has been shifted to mid-20th century England, with costumes (by Judith Aharon) from the 1930s and music of the 1960s.

All the players know the Shakespeare-Aloni text by heart and they speak their lines trippingly on the tongue, in a French accent if needed, scurrying about hither and thither, clad in their funny costumes, generating much ado. It’s not dizzying, but it’s brilliant precisely to the right degree for the audience to feel that a great effort is being made to amuse (men in ballet costumes who flaunt awkward legs are always funny).

There were occasional peaks, and there are proficient actors (Yehoyachin Friedlander, Irit Pashtan) who are adept at navigating their way through theatrical hijinks. But I couldn’t understand or feel what motivates Erez Shafrir in the role of Falstaff. He is not larger than life, he is not a slave to his passions. He does everything that’s needed, and makes the audience laugh, but somehow it doesn’t look as though he cares about all this, or is pained by it especially. The point is that in physical comedy – including that by Shakespeare, and more so one in which considerable effort has gone into the production – if the characters are not in distress, then the result is, in the optimal case, a pleasant evening.

And in the non-optimal case? Mr. Page (Yoav Hyman) aptly sums up the play – and the production – when he remarks: “What cannot be eschew’d must be embraced.”

But why must it be? A question to which I have no good answer.

The Khan Theater in Jerusalem stages “The Merry Wives of Windsor” on Saturday at 20.30.