Two Plays Show That the Simplest Theater Can Be the Best

The Globe’s performance of 'Hamlet' in Israel had all the potential of being a complex event, partly for non-theatrical reasons.

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The Globe’s performance of 'Hamlet' in Israel.
The Globe’s performance of 'Hamlet' in Israel. Credit: Efrat Avraham-Livneh

The production of “Hamlet” by the Globe Theatre of London, which was performed at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv at the end of March, opened with all the actors of the troupe together on the small stage. Two of them held two boards with the phrase “Two planks and a passion” written on them.

The two planks served the actors in marking the fortifications of Elsinore in the first scene in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father first appears. The origin of the phrase “Two planks and a passion,” which is also the name taken by a contemporary London theater group, is attributed to French author Alexandre Dumas, who said of Victor Hugo’s plays – or some say those of the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega – is that all he needed to make good theater “is four trestles, four boards, two actors, and a passion,” as William Ernest Henley wrote about Dumas in the Saturday Review back in 1883.

This review is about two plays I saw in one week; each was simple, each in its own way. Their quality could be summed up in those two stage planks, the actors who appeared on the stage and the anticipated passion.

The Globe’s performance of “Hamlet” in Israel had all the potential of being a complex event, partly for non-theatrical reasons. The performance here was part of the Globe’s traveling Hamlet World Tour, in which they performed Shakespeare’s masterpiece in almost every country in the world, marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.

The production was directed by Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst and was first performed at a festival at the Globe in London two years ago. Since then it has visited 196 countries. Habima, Israel’s national theater, performed The Merchant of Venice at the same festival, and anti-Israel protesters demonstrated against the performance at the time. The protesters also called on the Globe not to perform Hamlet in Israel, even though the plan was to perform it in every country around the world. Israel was the 185th country where the production was performed, which then moved on to Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and other countries.

The performance in Israel went off without any political interference whatsoever. The production will end next week in London, after an obligatory and penultimate performance at the real Elsinore (or Helsingor in Danish) castle in Denmark.

It is really a simple production, and not just because it did not even for a moment make an effort to create an illusion of reality. The traveling troupe of actors came to perform, our ears heard the sound effects while our eyes saw the actors and the instruments in their hands; the actors switched roles, the costumes were simple and understated, and no effort was made for a new or original interpretation of the story. They let the play, plot and words put your imagination to work.

Even this simplicity had layers: Some characters were portrayed in an extreme fashion, or their portrayal was outstanding for its excess of “passion,” exaggerated dramatics such as the acting of Gertrude (Miranda Foster), or a bit absurd comedy, such as the character of Polonius (Rawiri Paratene). Except that in such a difficult if not impossible production, such excess was actually a virtue. It made the achievements of the actors who played Hamlet and Ophelia stand out.

Because this is a traveling production, performed as a “play within a play within a play” – the Globe actors portray the cast of a traveling troupe performing Hamlet, a play itself in which the story is about a wandering troupe that performs a play before the characters in the play – the actors switch roles.

That evening in Tel Aviv, Ophelia was played by Phoebe Fildes, who has the look of an young English woman, with touching simplicity, and with just the right amount of passion for a young, confused woman worn down by a story larger than herself. Hamlet was played by Matthew Romain, and his Danish prince was wonderful in its natural simplicity of someone trying to understand what is happening to him, and why. He adapted the action to the words, and vice versa, the way Hamlet in the play instructs the actors. And suddenly it was not a masterpiece, not political or philosophical or interpretive, but a story of a young man trying to survive circumstances more powerful than himself, with human passion to live, to act if there is no choice, and not be afraid to die.

Average age of 80

I found a completely different kind of simplicity in the play “Quartet” at the Sifriya (Library) Theater, associated with the Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts in Ramat Gan.

The Sifriya has never seen such a cast as that performing the play by American Dan Clancy, and translated and directed by Roy Horovitz. Almost 320 cumulative years of life among the cast, over a quarter of a millennium of acting experience on the same stage. Miriam Zohar, Leah Koenig, Yehuda Efroni and Ilan Dar play two couples who are friends, and who review their friendship of 37 years.

Dan Clancy's 'Quartet' as translated and directed by Roy Horovitz. Credit: Yossi Zwecker

I very much hope that many young people who like theater will come see this play, both because it is a great privilege to see these people, who are a part of Israeli theater for as long as they want to or are able to perform on stage.

Here the simplicity is not such a simple matter, because the veteran actors are at times a collection of their own stage habits, too, and in more than a few cases their personalities are more powerful than the characters they portray.

In this case, the play was written such that it allows these actors to be at their best while protecting them. Four chairs and four clear plastic music stands are on stage (Ruth Dar was the set designer). This allows the quartet to sit and to make use of the text on the music stands too.

Miriam Zohar, who also fills the role of the play’s narrator, is the longest lived of all of them, and directs the audience’s attention to the fact that this is theater, but the actors/characters are helped by the scripts occasionally too.

The plot is chronological, with the story of the friendship – almost 40 years’ worth, from the post-Vietnam War days until the aftermath of 9/11 – presented through a series of monologues, dialogues and quartet scenes. A character who dies puts on a coat, takes the script from the music stand and turns his back on the audience. Without any excess drama, with basic humanity that only people who have already lived many years are capable of bringing to the stage (three of them continue to work as actors, and often, even at their age).

The playwright and director’s wisdom, as well as the quartet’s stage experience, let us connect with the simple story of life passing, seemingly lacking “greatness,” but still very important.

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