Onstage Nudity Gets a Chilly Reception Among Conservative Israeli Audiences

Be'er Sheva Theater's production of 'Nora', the local version of 'A Doll's House', is covered up for audiences in the rest of the country. Censorship or simply good business?

Theatergoers who attended “A Doll’s House” (staged locally under the name “Nora”) at the Jerusalem Theater last week saw a censored version of the Be’er Sheva Theater production. The marital rape scene, in which actress Avital Pasternak appears with her upper body nude in the original, was sanitized for the Jerusalem audience.

It turns out that the Jerusalem Theater is not the only venue that stages this version of the play; in fact, the more modest version is used in all performances of “Nora” outside of Be’er Sheva.

According to Be'er Sheva Theater officials, the nudity was removed at the request of the theaters and culture halls that have staged the show. Since “Nora” was first staged in Be’er Sheva at the end of April, it has been performed in Kiryat Haim, Jerusalem, Herzliya, Holon, Or Yehuda, Rehovot, Upper Nazareth, Ra’anana, Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi and elsewhere. In all these venues the censored version was performed.

The Be’er Sheva production of Henrik Ibsen's “A Doll’s House,” one of the world’s most important dramas. is based on an adaptation by Ingmar Bergmann. Ever since it was first staged in 1879, the play's criticism of marriage and the status of women has generated opposition.

At the center of the plot is a young woman named Nora who is bullied by her husband, Torvald Helmer. At the height of the drama, just before the marriage falls apart and a bundle of lies is exposed, the husband forces himself on his wife. In the Be’er Sheva production this is depicted as rape and the scene includes partial nudity.

Neither Ibsen’s original play nor Bergmann’s adaptation, which is considered more explicit, contain any stage directions or other indication that a rape is occurring in the scene. That’s the exclusive interpretation of director Kfir Azulay, who sounded ambivalent when addressing the issue of removing the nudity.

“I think it's problematic,” he said this week. “I am against the idea of dropping the nudity, because it certainly adds bluntness to the scene, which is supposed to be a rape scene.” He added, however, “We allowed the change when it became clear that this was a condition for the play being staged outside Be'er Sheva. It was important to me than the show have a run throughout the country and stay alive.”

According to Azulay, when the play came out in the late 19th century it was a different era and a more subtle scene would have worked, but “for today’s eyes, the nudity activates the scene.” Azulay added that Be’er Sheva audiences are usually shocked and respond vocally during the scene, while, at the Jerusalem Theater, no-one made a sound when Nora's dress was merely shifted a little off her shoulders.

Be’er Sheva Theater attributes the censorship to the conservatism of Israeli audiences, which are represented by theater buyers. The play continues to be staged in its original format in Be'er Sheva, despite the theater having received many complaints about the nudity and some walk-outs. In the other theaters, the public wasn’t given a choice.

The issue is not just the conservatism of Israeli theater, according to Be'er Sheva Theater officials, but the problematic way performances are marketed. So much power is concentrated in the hands of buyers that artistic directors often try to play to their tastes.

“We believe in freedom of expression,” Be'er Sheva Theater said in a statement. “But since the show is being staged before varied audiences and the partial nudity is not the main point of it, we saw fit to respond to the buyers’ requests and remove this segment.”

Azulay regrets the change, but adds, “One theater cannot buck the tide alone. Free expression in the theater is something everyone has to agree on.”

Yossi Zwecker