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Saturday, 5 May 2012

All The Globe’s A Stage – Even For Israelis

The.Globe.TheatreIsrael’s Habima Theatre  had expected  opposition to its participation in the current  ‘Globe to Globe’ World Shakespeare Festival.

But the top brass could not have envisaged the depth and breadth of rage members’ very presence in the U.K. continues to engender on both sides.

When the festival was first announced last autumn, Habima producer, Rut Tonn expressed pleasure that the Palestinian Ashtar Theatre Company would also be represented. She told The Jewish Chronicle:

"It's a blessing that we can both take part … We are always looking for collaborations which will help with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … "It's a very obvious choice – and the challenge now is to work on a production (The Merchant of Venice) within the Globe's traditional set and lighting.”

But far from being able to concentrate on dramaturgical niceties, the team has faced boycott demands from luminaries of the British stage while even some respected pro-Israel  commentators have wondered at their choice of play.

So here I will attempt to unravel the tangled threads and farcical scenes that continue to be enacted in  this   ‘melodrama within a drama’ whose script The Lord Chamberlain's Men would have consigned to a bin without discussion.

Like ninety-nine per cent of the so-called pro-Palestinian protests, the anti-Habima rumpus is not about aiding beleaguered Arabs but another chance to express naked hatred of Jews and Judaism.

I have scoffed at and continue to deride some journalists for finding antisemitism where there is none. But since Israel invaded Gaza during the winter of 2008-2009, reports of  occasionally outlandish and increasingly hysterical antisemitism  have grown by the month, the week – the day.

Small wonder that some Jews  who are naturally embarrassed by their antecedents use every chance to jump on the anti-Israel bandwagon.

Howard.Jacobson(Howard.Barlow)Novelist Howard Jacobson’s prize-winning novel was piercingly accurate about this. I, like him, know Jews ashamed of their heritage and  who feel suffocated in an all-Jewish atmosphere. Some are – were - my close relatives. Others have included Charlotte Holland, wife and mother of actors Sam and Zoe Wannamaker, respectively the late guiding spirit of the Globe Theatre and its current honorary president.

It is a scandalous irony that Sam fled the USA for Britain during the anti-Communist McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 1950s only, in Jacobson’s words, for the  Globe to be the centre of a new witch-hunt – against Israeli actors.

Sam.WannamakerI have no evidence that Zoe wants Habima banned and indeed, the Globe management insists their production will go ahead as planned at the end of May. But I wonder what she has said ‘backstage.’ After all she has revealed that she was raised as a cultural Jew without a formal Jewish education and says that her mother had felt uncomfortable among Jews.

 “… (she) never wanted to go to Israel because there were too many Jews there. She didn’t want to go to Golders Green because there were too many Jews there, too,” she told The J.C. when she appeared in an episode of  BBC TV’s  Who Do You Think You Are? genealogical series.

But the current outcry has also brought the customary Merchant haters scuttling out of the wainscot, variously dismissing the play as poor and essentially antisemitic. Why do Jews insist on staging it, they ask.

This is my answer: It is because real actors, like true writers and visual artists – no matter their religion or background – are faithful to their art. So they view The Zoe.WannamakerMerchant, not as an impoverished piece of work with a stereotypical anti-Jewish villain but as a majestic and impossibly complex piece of writing and theatre which should be staged and watched time and again so long as people wish to engage in the exercise.

This piece is not the forum to discuss Shakespeare’s possible antisemitism and whether it is reflected in his play. But it may be stated without fear of contradiction that Habima’s London production has generated enough of the stuff to make any Shylock say: “(they have) scorned my nation, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s their reason? I am a Jew …!”

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