Show and Tell: Israeli-Arab Actor Khalifa Natour Is Back on Stage

He describes his work with Peter Brook and aims some barbs at 'well-oiled machine of the large local theater companies.'

At the end of the rehearsal at the Haifa Theater, Khalifa Natour sits alone in one of the seats in the hall. He, like Eliezer "Lezer" Weingarten, the Jerusalemite he portrays in Yosef Bar-Yosef's play "Difficult People," is not "one of the guys."

Indeed, later, in an interview in the theater's office, Natour admits that "in recent years I have tried to fit in more, and it has gotten better, but it doesn't come easy. Am I an individualist? Yes, there is something to that. But I have learned something about compassion, I've learned to accept things. I try to connect."

"Difficult People," directed by Moshe Naor, is a beautiful play about a peculiar attempt at matchmaking. The setting is England, home to Rachel (Helena Yaralova), an aging unmarried woman who has had her fill of disappointments in love. Her brother (Moshe Ivgy ) returns from a visit to Israel and brings with him a groom - Lezer. Lezer is an eccentric fellow who divorced his wife because of her fondness for coffee shops, but he is also a pursuer of justice, naive and charming. He and Rachel forge a delicate bond, but her brother disrupts it.

"I really enjoy playing Lezer," says Natour, 47, a native of Kalansua in the Little Triangle region of Arab towns and villages in the central part of the country. "And when I tell his stories of Jerusalem, I recall my memories from the village. I am not a Jerusalemite, but there is something about the simple life [Lezer describes] that reminds me of my childhood, with the laundry hanging on lines that hid the sky. It's a genuine connection that causes me to get emotional, but Moshe [Naor] doesn't let me. He keeps telling me: 'Tone down the emotion.'

"There are similarities between me and Lezer," he continues. "I get why he asks all the questions. Like him I too uncover things that were concealed. I am amazed at the complexity of the psyche. Lezer is a man who experienced things and therefore has difficulty connecting [with people]. The trauma is constantly renewed. It's a kind of return to things that I did many years ago."

For 16 years Natour did not work in Israeli repertory theater. "I really distanced myself, both from the mode of work and personally," he adds. "It could be it was mutual. But it did me good, because it meant getting away from a particular approach, from the method and manner in which the Israeli repertory theater operates: two months of rehearsals, then traveling throughout the country. You get to know what the audience wants. I tried completely different things.

"Today I am glad my return to repertory has been via the Haifa Theater, which is not an intensive operation like the big theater companies, where dozens of actors mill about shouting, and the dressers take care of the stars. Here in Haifa I know the people, the crew, I feel personally cared for. So all of these things made for a soft landing in the theater."

You spoke of a mutual distancing. Do you mean that you were not offered enough roles?

Natour: "Perhaps that is true as well. When I came to the Cameri [Theater in Tel Aviv] recently, I was asked whether I was an actor and with whom I studied at Beit Zvi [acting school]. This means that we don't speak the same language, and I don't mean Arabic and Hebrew. I have no complaints about not being offered roles at the Cameri or Habima, because it's just possible that I too - without being cocky - might be the one refusing. I am not right for those places. Because what am I? I'm not a good singer, I'm not a good entertainer, I'm not a famous comedian, and not a television celebrity. On the other hand, it is possible that an actor who is not particularly good on stage will nevertheless be sought after in the theater, because he's on TV every day. I'm not on TV and not in movies all the time. So I guess they don't need me because they're looking for famous people."

The rehearsal in Haifa was impressive, but Natour was not really satisfied. It went too quickly for his taste, all sorts of nuances had not been addressed, and there was too much sweat involved, too much effort, he said. Natour is very critical of himself.

Natour's landing at the Haifa Theater did not begin with "Difficult People," but rather with "Ulysses on Bottles," by Gilad Evron. For his role in that play Natour was nominated for best actor in the 2012 Israeli Theater Awards, which were bestowed several weeks ago. In it, Natour plays an Arab teacher of literature, who insists on sailing to Gaza on a raft that he built out of bottles. As far as he's concerned, nobody more than the Gazans of today needs Russian literature, which he believes allows the human spirit to soar. His raft is loaded with books by Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov and others, but they do not reach their destination and drown at sea. He himself gets locked up in an Israeli prison.

Natour's acting in Evron's play is of rare quality. Every moment he spends on stage is precise, exciting, memorable. It is hard to forget his eyes, which simultaneously express anger and tenderness, compassion and contempt.

After his studies at Beit Zvi, Natour acted at Habima and the Jerusalem Khan. In seeking what he calls a unique artistic dialogue, he also acted at Al-Kasaba Theater in Ramallah and at the Palestinian Al-Hakawati Theater in Jerusalem.

"The way things were handled [in those theaters] was more personal," he explains. "I worked with friends - for example, on Al-Hakawati Theater's 'Jidariyya' [Mural] by Mahmoud Darwish, directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi. I took part in adapting the poem and I also acted in it, and the production toured abroad.

"I was also a partner to the adaptation of 'Stories Under Occupation' by the Al-Kasaba Theater, and there too I acted and we went abroad. The play, which is based on monologues and skits, was put on at the Young Vic and the Royal Court in London, as well as in Egypt, Sweden, the United States and other places. Recently I also adapted and wrote Palestinian stories for Ofira Henig's project 'Both Upon a Time,' and acted in it."

In other words, as an actor, you wanted to address the political situation?

"It was important to me to conduct a real cultural dialogue and not just be like a tool in a role somebody picks for me so I can continue to receive a salary. In fact I lost a great deal; financially speaking, I was in bad shape because of these things. It was important to me to participate in writing and directing. And it was good. Better each time. Even [British director] Peter Brook asked me to write something: a text of a character that recounts what happened 200 or 300 years after Mohammed lived. So I wrote a piece and acted it in a play that Peter directed, '11 and 12.'"

A privilege

Very few Israelis have had the privilege of working with Peter Brook. Khalifa Natour worked with the great director from 2007 to 2010. First he acted in two productions originating in Israel, that Brook chose to have performed at his Paris theater, Bouffes du Nord: "In Spitting Distance," which won first place at Teatronetto 2006, and "Jidariyya." Later Natour took part in two plays directed by Brook himself: "Fragments," based on short plays by Samuel Beckett, and "11 and 12," which was performed in many places around the world. The latter work is about a struggle that began in Mali in colonial Africa and spread to other countries, involving a debate over an Islamic prayer.

"That was not an easy period," Natour recalls of those years with Brook. "It wasn't, 'come play a part,' but rather a type of process: work, workshops. It's also a step up in terms of theater language and of approach to theater."

What do you mean?

"All of Peter Brook's fans ask me: 'How did you get to Peter?' And I tell them: 'Listen and believe me - when you get to Peter, it means that you are at the bottom.' It's not that you have to be somebody to get to Peter. On the contrary: You have to be in touch with yourself and to say, 'Am I ready to work with Peter, to go act with Peter, am I capable of containing Peter?'"

That is very surprising.

"But it's the truth. Because it is not easy to work with Peter. And why? Because you have to agree to forgo ego and everything that you learned in repertory theater, not to ask, 'Where is my room and where is the mirror and why are the costumes like this?' Because he doesn't deal with that. He deals with you, as a person. There isn't a superfluous word. You suddenly fall into something totally different, a different approach.

"And then you do exercises with Peter, the essence of which is listening to new people. And everything is done on the floor. He demands that you come and do warm-ups, and work with a musician who also sits on the floor, with lots of instruments. And then you come to Peter 'cleaner,' and you're not allowed to demand things or to know what will happen.

"Incidentally, I'm going to him now for a filmed workshop, and I don't ask what it is about; I just prepare mentally for it. At the end of a four-day workshop, we will appear before an audience that he invites, about 70 people, which he will film as well. Peter always works this way." [It took place several weeks ago]

Do actors receive wages with Brook?

"Bouffes du Nord, in Paris, where he is the artistic director, pays salaries, also for rehearsals and workshops. We don't work on a voluntary basis. They don't lack for money."

How did you come to know Brook?

"I think he first encountered me through video clip of my work. His assistant and partner saw 'Jidariyya' in Sweden and told him. When Peter came on a visit to Israel we met at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem. He invited Nizar Zouabi and me to a workshop and we read from the play '11 and 12.' Later I invited him to see 'In Spitting Distance.' He came and also invited the production to his theater in Paris. And that's how I wound up being there at Bouffes du Nord for a whole shebang of two plays. One of them I adapted and I act in it alongside Makram Khoury, and one is a monodrama. They were performed an hour apart."

How has your connection to Brook influenced you?

"If you consent to get close to him, it's a calming influence, paternal, strong. In the theater this influence is already recognizable in me."

Fig leaf

Khalifa Natour grew up in Kalansua, the 13th of 14 children. None of his siblings studied acting. When he chose this path, "there was some teasing, but no one objected," he says. His father, who died 30 years ago, ran a kind of general store in the village. His mother, who passed away just over a month ago, took care of the house and kids, and also worked at the store and in farming.

Natour's love of acting sprouted at an early age. "I was active at the community center in the village," he says, "but then it closed down, because there was no budget. I began to write, direct and act, on a small stage that I built in the middle of the village. Every time there was some event, my friends and I would be invited to perform."

He left home at 18. "My parents were elderly, I didn't find common ground with them," he explains. He moved to Kfar Sava, worked as a bartender and mainly as a caregiver in nursing homes, and saved up money to study at Beit Zvi. At 22 he was accepted.

"I paid some of the money, and came to pick up some plays. It looked scary to me," Natour recalls now. "The students seemed older than me. I watched how they memorized a text quickly and realized that I was a long way from being able to do that. I didn't start school and ... in two or three years, when I came back, they admitted me without an audition."

He calls his Beit Zvi period "interesting," and remembers being introduced there to, among other things, the plays of Shakespeare and Chekhov, and to Western movies. "And then everything got rolling in a big way," he says. "I got a lot of roles, lead roles. Beit Zvi was not just a place where I went to school; it was home and life as in a commune with everyone. Although it wasn't easy that I had to act in Hebrew only."

Even before graduation he signed a contract with Habima to act in "Black Battles with Dogs" by Bernard-Marie Koltes. He subsequently participated in "The Child Dreams" by Hanoch Levin, and "The Screens" by Jean Genet. In the mid-1990s he left Habima for the Khan, where he played Romeo in a Jewish-Arab version of Shakespeare's play, directed by Eran Baniel and Fuad Awad.

Natour admits that the fact that he is unmarried is seen as unacceptable in Arab society. "I've had relationships that did not work out," he says. "I think I messed up, because I was a little emotionally damaged ... It became a bit of a trauma. And then work in the theater led me to move around the world for three or four years with Peter. I worked on the two most interesting productions of my life and traveled around with a little suitcase from New Zealand to Australia, to Germany. I lived like that for four years. If I wanted to buy a book I had to remove another book from the suitcase. Being without a home was not easy."

Today he resides in Haifa. "I am new there and I like it," he says. "I also teach acting at the University of Haifa, and there is also an Arab community here that is into art."

It is important to Natour to work with a good director. He cites "Hanan Snir, with whom it was a delight for me to work, Hanoch Levin, Ofira Henig and now Moshe Naor." Japanese theater director Yukio Ninagawa chose Natour to be in a coproduction with the Cameri of Euripedes' "The Trojan Women" later this year, but it didn't work out.

Why not?

"There are theaters that try to create a niche of Arabs and Jews together. They're looking for fig leaves, and after 20 years that I've been in the profession, they want to pay me a ridiculous sum for rehearsals. The thinking at theaters is that there isn't enough of a budget for artistic roles, which is not the right way to think about it. And the idea is to tour abroad a few times and show the world how Arabs and Jews, work together."

The Cameri's general director, Noam Semel, said in response: "Natour received a monetary offer identical to that of all 15 actors who were chosen for the coproduction, Jewish and Arab, among them Rivka Michaeli, Salwa Nakkara, Tiki Dayan and Raida Adon ... The Cameri puts on Jewish-Arab productions. 'Return to Haifa,' for example, was recently performed 15 times in Washington and next season will be staged in New York."

Natour, for his part, says: "I found another path for myself, within a particular circle in which I can work and make a living, even without the major theaters. Nizar Zouabi, for example, is not connected to that well-oiled machine, but he is currently directing at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Ofira [Henig] is doing a project with Germany and Switzerland. This type of theater doesn't receive budgets from the state, it is not reviewed and people don't know what sort of statement is being made by us ... It's sad."

But Arab theater is budgeted by the Culture and Sports Ministry, and as far as I know it saw an increase this year.

"The problem is that they are not attentive to our special needs. It doesn't work with us the way it does at your big theaters. Al-Midan, for example, which is the Arab theater that is supposed to accommodate us all - it too has to market its plays, but it has no auditoriums like the big theaters. In the Little Triangle alone, there are 250,000 people and not even one big auditorium. There are small community centers that cannot accommodate a big production."

What is going on with the Al-Kasaba Theater in Ramallah?

"The theater company still exists, but it isn't putting on a lot of productions. It functions more as a movie theater. We started out there with a play from Arab folklore, 'Zeir Salim,' at the time of the second intifada. The auditoriums were packed because we wrote about the simplest things relating to the people. The audiences came en masse at a time when people were being murdered daily in the streets. Each week we wrote new texts, monologues by Palestinians. I directed some of the plays, and most were directed by Nizar Zouabi. Eventually we gathered all of the pieces and edited them into a collage. And even though it is not the most sophisticated play, and its set cost maybe NIS 1,000, it became a successful work called 'Stories Under Occupation,' which has been performed all over the world.

"But the last play put on at Al-Kasaba was 'The Chairs' by [Eugene] Ionesco, directed by Juliano Mer. I was at the opening night. And the next day he was murdered. Since the murder I haven't been to Al-Qasba."

Is it important to you to appear in plays that make a political statement?

"People confuse a political statement with a statement about identity, which does not attack and does not express a political opinion. And in that respect, of course, I would like to make a statement. 'The Trojan Women,' in which Arabs and Jews take part, is a classical Greek play, but it makes a statement about human existence."

Are there roles you dream of playing in the theater here?

"I look at things another way: It's not the specific role that is important to me, but rather the context in which it will be done. In other words, it doesn't matter which, but rather why and how."

Gerard Alon