This time last year, a rap opera created by three Israeli friends was about to hit the proverbial big time with a month-long run at the legendary Edinburgh Festival Fringe. But what happened next was almost as surreal as anything they could have made up for their rhyming policemen, sultry singers and other film noir-influenced cast of characters.
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A rap/beatbox/spoken-word comedic whodunit, “The City” was painstakingly translated into English by the three writers/actors/musicians/friends – Amit Ulman, Omer Havron and Omer Mor, all 30 – who conceived of the show several years ago. They spent the long hot days of early summer last year practicing lines, working on their pronunciation, and playing with the new puns and punch lines. Together with the rest of the ensemble (Dorit Lilien and Roni Rocket) and the technical crew, they then packed up their props, bought their plane tickets, organized lodgings, invited their families to come and applaud them in Scotland – and set off, guitars and keyboards in hand, on their big adventure.
But faster than one could say “Wow! You’re actually performing in Edinburgh!” the ensemble got booed, abused and hounded out of the festival. All after one, much interrupted, curtain rise. The theater they had booked, The Underbelly, quickly canceled their run but kept the troupe’s money. No other venue could or would touch them.
None of this was a critical response to how Havron portrayed Joe, the cynical, small-time private detective who’s the star of the show. Nor about the plausibility of the mysterious Sarah Bennett (played by Lilien), who comes into Joe’s office and begs him to investigate the disappearance of her sister. It wasn’t about Ulman’s direction or staging, Mor’s musical arrangements, Roni’s quips, the lyrics, the plot or the lighting.
It was, instead, about the Gaza war that raged last August, and the objections a growing number of protesters had to Edinburgh hosting a troupe sponsored, even in small part, by the Israeli government.
Dozens of Scotland’s most prominent arts figures backed the protests and called for a boycott of the Israeli performance – including playwright David Greig and Scotland’s national poet, Liz Lochhead.
The Victor Jackson Show, the ensemble behind “The City,” is part of a larger company in Jerusalem called Incubator Theater – which in turn receives a small grant from the Culture and Sports Ministry, as well as support from the Jerusalem municipality.
“Yes, we did accept funding from the government. We needed it. It helped us pay for the plane tickets, for starters,” says Ulman, nearly a year on. “And we were not about to deny that.”
Edinburgh’s Fringe is the world’s largest arts festival and hosts thousands of shows every August. Last year, more than 3,100 shows were staged, from 51 different countries. “The City” was the only one to be forced out. In fact, in its entire 68-year history – the fringe was founded a year before the State of Israel – no other show had ever been kicked out of the festival for political reasons.
A month’s-worth of articles discussing freedom of speech ensued – as did a scramble by Jewish communities throughout Britain to invite the ensemble to perform for them and recoup some of its financial losses. “That was great of them,” says Ulman, “but we’d hoped to reach a larger audience, beyond the Jewish one. This is not an Israel-specific or Jewish-themed production.”
Before leaving the Scottish capital, the five Israelis spent their time looking, vainly, for a venue that might host them, before finally performing out in the street, silently, as a symbolic act. Hundreds of protesters (some wearing T-shirts depicting a bomb with a Star of David on it, flying toward a baby carriage) responded by again interrupting the performance, standing directly in front of the actors and cursing them, calling them killers.
A dance troupe from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which had planned to participate in the Edinburgh festival later that month, watched from afar – and decided to stay home in Israel.
“It was one of those rare situations where the saying ‘No publicity is bad publicity’ was just not true,” says Lilien. “Because, basically, while everyone was talking about us – no one actually saw the show. And we are actors. The whole point was to perform.”
“Edinburgh was going to be our break: it was great international exposure. We were hoping it would give us a leg up to the next level professionally. But it didn’t happen that way,” recalls Ulman. “It really slowed our momentum.”
“And it was frightening,” adds Lilien. “It’s hard not to take it personally.”
It may have slowed their momentum and scared them, but it failed to kill the show.
A year on, the troupe is hard at work and rehearsing in English all over again. It will stage two English-language performances of “The City” in Israel this week – at Tel Aviv’s Tzavta on August 11 and Jerusalem’s Beit Mazia the following night). And early next month, the group heads to a theater festival in Tbilisi, Georgia, after accepting an invitation to perform there. Ulman says they’re hoping other international festivals will follow suit with further invitations.
Do they think the reception they’ll receive will be different this summer? “We really hope so,” Ulman shrugs. “Couldn’t be worse,” adds Lilien.
One place the five Israelis have no plans to revisit is, unsurprisingly, Edinburgh. “No Israeli group, at least not one with any government funding, is planning on being there,” says Ulman. “To be fair, it’s like Disney World for theater in Edinburgh,” waxes Lilien. “There’s so much to see. When I arrived I thought it was a dream. But by the end, it was just traumatic.”
“I always thought of myself as an ‘artist,’ not really an ‘Israeli artist,’” concludes Ulman. “I actually came home feeling more Israeli and more like I belonged here. And, sure, I felt proud, too – that’s just who I am.”