"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" was the play that catapulted Tom Stoppard to stardom when it premiered at the National Theater in London in 1967. The Gesher Theater produced it here successfully but the adaptation (and translation) by Yael Ronen at the Cameri in Tel Aviv seemed to be suffering from extreme bad luck.
That production was conceived as an "appendage" to the very successful "Hamlet" running on Stage Three of the Cameri for the last two years (currently on its way to Cleveland). After all, Stoppard's play follows Shakespeare's courtiers when they are not on Hamlet's stage ("every exit being an entrance somewhere else"). But as Ronen's production ran on the same stage and used the same set as Hamlet, using Rosencrantz (Yaniv Biton) and Guildenstern (Yoav Levi) - both brilliant as comedians - and The Player (Rami Baruch in another "once-in-a-lifetime" performance) - it ran rarely. My first opportunity to see it since it premiered more than a year ago came yesterday morning.
But what an opportunity! In the audience was the author, Sir Tom Stoppard, in Israel for the first time, who was here to receive the Dan David award. To judge from the things he had to say, the luck of this production should change for the better. Rarely does a production receive such accolades from a playwright known to be particular and demanding about the production of his plays. It spares me the need of writing a review, as I cannot add much to his words.
Following the performance, the audience was asked to sit in while Stoppard was interviewed by Professor Linda Streit from the Department of English and American Literature at Tel Aviv University. It quickly became apparent that Stoppard, rather than answering general questions about his work, preferred to hear about and talk about the performance just over. He started by saying: "If someone had asked me if it is possible to do this play with only three people, I would have said no. I tend to discourage people. That just shows how limited one is about one's own writing. One has to be liberated from one's own sense of the work."
Stoppard said he tends to be treated as someone who is entirely and absolutely "the writer," but he first got to the theater as a journalist, in Bristol, writing on various subjects, and got to know the theater scene. "I was excited and pleased to enter this world," he said.
He is known for being present at the rehearsals of the first productions of his new plays. "What I feel is it is a good thing to let your colleagues know what you intended in your play, so they can eliminate it - or use part of it."
Stoppard is a master of paradox, a juggler of words and ideas, and seemingly, as he will be the first to admit, a very "textual" playwright. But with the passing years he has learned that "theater is not as much about the text as I thought when I started writing. The last couple of hours was absolutely full of imaginative work, that was fully beyond the mold of the play you have written somewhere in 1960."
Ronen's production is successful in making the play work with only three actors (and two non-speaking parts) by using CCTV cameras, through which the cast of "Hamlet," a production seemingly in progress off-stage but actually onstage somewhere else, are communicating with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Stoppard found the idea "completely brilliant." Of course, he had a different reference point in mind, but Stoppard said: "I must congratulate you all, because it is something precious that I will take home with me."
He wanted very much to include the director and the actors in the post-performance talk. He asked Rami Baruch whether the cigarette in his mouth on stage was actually lit. Baruch thought the question was about interpretation and said usually he really does light up, but this time it didn't work. "Great", responded Stoppard. "I wouldn't want to be the first to smoke on this stage." Then he lit up.
He turned to the actors: "Something struck me very deeply. I just loved the picture the three of you made on stage. I had a weird feeling I saw you in a picture book when I was 4 years old. And I don't even know your names" (this to Yael Ronen, who joined him onstage).
Ronen said she was 18 when she first read the play and was amazed that someone could write like that.
Stoppard once said that all his plays are five minutes too long, and now said: "I have never seen this play done without an intermission. My opinion is worthless, but I never found it too long. How much did you cut? How long it is? (It is about 90 minutes).
"I'm all in favor. The greatest thing that can happen to a playwright, no actually the greatest thing for a playwright, is to see the play he has written for the first time on stage, done by actors. The second greatest, is when he realizes that the play feels secure about itself. That is the greatest compliment one can give a play. I'm feeling embarrassed now, as I'm going to make a conceited statement: You make me feel that the play is kind of a classic that you can reconstruct. I'm going to be extremely personal and self-referential. At some moment, early on, I began to take in how many dimensions you have used as a director. I had actually this childish thought of writing the play in my room off Vauxhall Bridge Road, in the Sixties. I never had an idea that one day I'll be sitting here. That is a thought that could silence me for the rest of the day."
But he did not intend for that to happen. After the talk he joined the actors for drinks upstairs, seemingly willing to sit longer and swap stories.
When he learned that Ronen not only directed the play but also translated, he told her that for him it was an even bigger success. He does not speak Hebrew, but he could follow the play and knew at every moment which part of the text was being uttered. "You know, writers tend to be vain about their 'laughs', and I was constantly making mental 'tick offs' in my mind. 'Ah, she got that laugh as well.'"
Stoppard asked Ronen if directing a written play (as opposed to projects improvised with the actors while rehearsing) made her want to direct more written plays. This was her first. She answered that she doesn't know. He wanted to know about her other projects, and when he heard that "The Tangle" (a play cowritten and performed by Israeli and Palestinian actors) will play at the Barbican in London, he asked to be notified about the performance.
Unlike fellow playwrights Harold Pinter and David Hare, to mention only two, Stoppard has never gone on record about the situation in the Middle East, although he was not shy from letting his views be known about matters political, for instance freedom of speech issues, especially in the former communist bloc. He does not say anything about Israel and the Palestinians because he thinks one shouldn't speak on subjects one knows so little about. So he spent his time in Israel (when not receiving awards and being interviewed and feted) taking in information.
"I'm not being facetious," said Stoppard, "but I don't know many things. I know a little about a lot of things. In 'The Seagull,' Trigorin says of himself that as he is famous writer, people ask his opinion about things he knows nothing about."
He agreed that it is odd this is his first visit to Israel.
For him the most difficult thing is to get to the top of the first page of a new play, and he is not working on anything at the moment. He would have liked, it seems, to go on sitting sipping wine and coffee and trading theater stories. But duty called, and off he went to Tel Aviv University.