Power of Greek Classics Returns to Israeli Stage

Three plays brought the classics back after a prolonged absence, and one of them is outstanding.

Michael Handelzalts
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Michael Handelzalts

Israeli theater is in no hurry to deal with classic plays, although the situation today is apparently better than it was a decade ago. When it turns its attention to what is considered classic material, its immediate preference usually borders on modern theater, such as Ibsen and Chekhov. The realm of classic German theater (Goethe and Schiller ) is almost totally absent on the Israeli stage; of the selection of French offerings the obvious preference is for Moliere; and the default is Shakespeare.

Of course, something genuinely classical is also missing from this list: Greek theater. It is therefore noteworthy that this year the Israeli audience has three opportunities to meet Greek drama. I say noteworthy, because in my experience as a reader and theatergoer every meeting with classic material - even if not best performed - is an opportunity for readers and theatergoers to be complete people, richer and better. This is one of the reasons these plays are considered classics.

The first opportunity of the three, chronologically, was the production of "The Trojan Women" by Euripides, directed by Yukio Ninagawa, a co-production of the Cameri Theater and Tokyo Metropolitan Theater translated from ancient Greek into Hebrew, Arabic and Japanese with a cast of Japanese, Jewish-Israeli and Arab-Israeli actors.

Glorified by its international status, the production featured some wonderful visual moments but suffered from an imbalance in the acting levels, with a very impressive Japanese side, a fascinating Israeli Arab side and an almost totally pathetic Israeli Jewish side. It also suffered from the text of the chorus - which in this tragedy is also the main heroine - repeating itself three times, including the subtitles. This great drawback - there are those who claim that this caused the production to flop - was a great advantage to those prepared for it: the opportunity to delve into this wonderful antiwar text.

Set in Vichy, France

Then came the production "Anti" at the Gesher Theater. This work is an indirect approach to Greek drama, adapted by Jean Anouilh from the era of the Vichy rule in France, but the plot remains as is: the struggle between a young girl and the ruler over his status and legal and moral authority. The director, Yevgeny Arye, turned the chorus in this play into an entertainment troupe conducted by Sasha Demidov, and for all its great charm, there was in the stage production a (great ) amount of flattering the audience. For all that, the strength of the tragedy - which ultimately leaves the audience helplessly facing the clash of two uncompromising, justified approaches - steadfastly remains, due in no small part to the main actors, Creon (Shmuel Vilozhny ) and Antigone (Ruth Rasiuk ).

One of the key ways, maybe the most important of them, to comprehend Greek drama in our time is the decision about "what to do with the chorus." In terms of the dramatic plot, in most Greek tragedies the chorus acts as a sort of observer-commentator. But for the modern theatergoer, who is used to realistic drama, even with period wardrobe, the chorus is a sort of surplus that cannot be done away with - the Greeks put very important texts in their mouths - but there has to be a way to justify its existence, irrespective of what is happening on the stage.

Modern location

At the Be'er Sheva Theater the director Gadi Rol decided that the tragedy "Iphigenia" will take place in a television studio, before, during and after a live broadcast. As a result - or maybe the opposite, since Rol decided the chorus will represent the "media," or public opinion - his chorus comprises five women dressed in men's black suits, white shirts and black ties; these are four young graduates of the Be'er Sheva acting school, led by the trained and experienced actress-singer Michal Weinberg. They speak most of the time in unison, as a talking-singing chorus (to music composed by Eldad Lidor ); part of the time they are close to the microphone stands and move with them around the stage. They are also equipped with personal microphones, and occasionally turn into photographers and stage hands baring the boom microphones of a live broadcast mobile television unit. Sometimes a piece by the chorus turns into the show itself, for example when the chorus speaks rhythmic rap and the androgynous figures disrobe from their black suits to reveal their upper bodies in black bras. This adds effectiveness, rhythm and unity to the play. For all that, too many parts of the chorus' texts are crowded out in the tumult and don't reach the audience's ears, and if I hadn't read the text (in a renewed translation by Aharon Shabtai ) I would have only understood parts of some sections.

Gripping, horrifying plot

And the chorus says some important things. Apart from the chorus and stage described here, the play has, of course, a gripping and horrifying plot, and is narrated by a great dramatic artist. It's not every day that a theater mobilizes for such an important play, with a production so tight and daring, even if not perfect, and such a praiseworthy cast: Amir Krief as Agamemnon, another classical role which he deals with admirably; Shiri Golan as Clytemnestra, which seals her status as a leading actress; Nimrod Bergman as Menelaus; and Gloria Bess in her stage debut in a leading role as Iphigenia, which was etched into the viewer's memory.

During the performance I attended a handful of spectators left the hall. I have nothing left to say, it is everyone's right to leave a performance that doesn't interest him - but I don't understand these people. True, this play has faults, but only a very few plays can boast such virtues, and I continue to reflect on it to this day.

From "The Trojan Woman": a powerful antiwar message. Credit: Aviram Shehainu