British Theater's Tortured Genius of a Playwright Debuts in Israel

Lilach Dekel Avneri was the first Israeli director to showcase British director Sarah Kane's mad genius.

Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
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Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem

Controversial, brilliant and ultimately dead by her own hand, Sarah Kane was introduced to Israel by Lilach Dekel Avneri. She was the first director to dare to showcase the British director's mad genius, in the play "Phaedra's Love" performed (in Hebrew) to acclaim at the Tel Aviv venue Tmuna Theater in 2007.

Kane was a rare being. The controversial, trail-blazing director shot to fame in London in the late 1990s, not least thanks to every one of her plays arousing controversy and challenging the critics. But suffering from depression, she committed suicide in 1999 after writing only five plays, which proffered a rare brew of sex-violence-love-death-life.

The Royal Court Theater in London adopted the razor-sharp, biting Kane, whose writing is suffused with slang, from her university days. In Israel the repertory theaters wouldn't touch her material with a barge-pole – until Dekel Avneri came along and did just that.

Her courage and unique view signals that her appointment as the artistic director of the "International Exposure" theater will prove to be an interesting choice.

"International Exposure", scheduled for November, is a showcase for presenting Israeli plays to key people in the global theater industry, with collaboration in mind (this year it will include the similar event "Isra-Drama").

The choice of Dekel Avneri, who until recently was the artistic adviser to Tmuna, signals to artists in independent theater - who must fight tooth and nail for recognition and budgets - that the door is open.

New artistic languages welcome

International Exposure will present select works that were staged after January 2012. In response to its solicitation, its artistic committee was offered about 100 plays, of which about 15 will be chosen.

Their preference is for "innovative works, new artistic languages, a play that is trailblazing, multidisciplinary, challenging in content, and that encourages critical thinking," says Dekel Avneri. This is an opportunity to demonstrate Israeli creative work, she says: "What irks the artists, what they have to say about human nature and about what is happening here." It is an opportunity, she says, "to present the breadth of Israeli theater."

Pursuant to her new role of choosing (with a committee) the best Israeli works to be shown to the theater representatives, the directors and the producers from abroad, she seems to be trying to be statesmanlike and balanced. She doesn't want to point accusing fingers at anyone. But listen carefully, for example regarding Sarah Kane and repertory theater in Israel, and you realize that her world view is far outside the mainstream.

"A major theater like the Royal Court took a risk and accepted responsibility for this important artist," she says. "It continued experimenting with Sarah Kane. Her productions at the Royal Court were the theater's most expensive ones, despite the criticism."

In her opinion, Sarah Kane deserved to be shown in establishment theater in Israel. "Hanoch Levin has equally provocative works. I don't understand the theaters' considerations. I have no such considerations. My choices of texts are not dependent on anything. I'm not trying to entertain the audience."

Swallow that fish

Dekel Avneri, who is in her 40s, lives in Tel Aviv. She is married to a doctor and has an 8-year old son. She studied writing in the Tel Aviv University theater department, and after finishing her studies decided to work as an independent artist.

In 2005 she adapted and directed the play "A Fish in the Tummy," based on stories by Efrat Danon. In 2004 she adapted and directed "Ovadia the Invalid," with the interdisciplinary Hazira performance art arena in Jerusalem, and translated several plays. She also initiated and directed the Small Bama student theater festival at Tel Aviv University during the last 10 years.

She does not downplay the difficulties of repertory theater. "There's no question that the theaters in Israel have acute problems," she says, and also the state's support isn't enough. "But the question of the extent to which the amount of support obligates them to stage commercial productions is relevant. This is a sort of sacrilege. Commercial theater is completely legitimate theater, but only in the sphere of commercial theater."

"The fact that there is little political theater in Israel is a function of theatrical tradition, she says, "which in turn is a function of acceptance by the audience, but first of all of artistic acceptance and recognition."

Most plays staged in Israel deal with family. That's because repertory theater cavils at experimenting, she avers. "In effect, everything is political. Even a play about a couple's relationship can be political, but the question is how much that's blurred. How important it is to the audience, to the artist, to emphasize politics."

She doesn't agree with the chestnut that budgetary problems and dependence on outside support are what prevent daring and provocative plays. "Shakespeare didn't write for those in the know. He wrote for the people, and the people came," she says.

Lilach Dekel Avneri.Credit: David Bachar
Sarah KaneCredit: Wikimedia Commons

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