Enough already with the Israel plays

By John Nathan, March 19, 2009
Iris Bahr and David Hare have put the Arab-Israeli conflict on stage in London, in two very different plays

Iris Bahr and David Hare have put the Arab-Israeli conflict on stage in London, in two very different plays

Shaw Theatre, London NW1

Royal Court, London SW1

You would think it had been planned. The day after Iris Bahr brought her solo show to the Shaw Theatre, Sir David Hare premiered his at the Royal Court. It is hard to imagine two more different writer/performers than Hare and Bahr. Or two plays more closely linked.

Bahr is the American-Israeli comedy actor who twice appeared on Larry David’s sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm as the very Jewish and intimidatingly Orthodox Rachel Heineman, a character who would not be out of place in the Tel Aviv cafe where Bahr sets her play and which, during the evening’s uninterrupted 80 minutes, we repeatedly see blown-up by a suicide bomber.

And then there is Hare, this country’s very English principal state-of-the-nation playwright, who, just as he did in 1998 with Via Dolorosa, has turned his attention to the state-of-the-Israeli-nation, and that of Palestinians too.

The 45-minute Wall was, in fact, written as companion piece to another Hare monologue, Berlin, which is about a place whose barrier has come down rather than gone up. Wall has finished its run — though it is sure to return — and Bahr’s piece is on its way to South Africa. But the accidental connection between these performers and plays is irresistible.

First, though, the differences.

New York-born Bahr was a sergeant in the Israeli army; Sussex-born Hare, well, wasn’t. In Wall, Hare stands alone on stage as himself; Bahr, though also alone, inhabits 10 diverse characters representing an Arab and Jewish cross-section of Israeli society.

Hare comes across as a bit of a prig, but then he is not a brilliant performer like Bahr; Bahr’s play is structurally flawed, but then she is not a brilliant dramatist like Hare.

Bahr does however, effortlessly shift between accents, genders and nationalities. The first is a Kate Adie-style broadcast journalist who conducts a series of interviews with the patrons of the cafe.

And just as we get to know each interviewee, the bomb explodes. The Israeli poseur actress; the “settler” mother; the philosophical Russian prostitute; the dignified Israeli Arab lady are each in mid-sentence at the moment when life is terminated. The in-character Bahr freezes in a white spotlight and slumps to the floor.

It is the wall of sound that terrifies. A huge blast followed by the gentle precipitation of falling debris and then the moans and cries of the injured and dying.

But as each monologue is brought to its devastating end, an unintended question is posed. How is our journalist meant to have conducted several interviews simultaneously at the moment the bomb went off? Still, the moment when lives are brutally cut short is as poignant the first time as it is the tenth.

This was Israel before the wall was built, the Israel that was blitzed by suicide bombers. And if Dai — which in Hebrew means “enough” — is the before, Wall is the after — the Israel that has seen an 80 per cent reduction in bombings since the barrier separating the country from the West Bank was built. But Wall is also about the Palestinians who have to endure the humiliating Israeli road blocks.

“OK,” says Hare, “let’s go coolly. If I use one word or other, forgive me — it does not imply I am partisan.”

And for the most part, you would have to agree. The playwright brings to bear a particular brand of English moral authority and no doubt for some, condescension, to his subject. As if what the warring parties are lacking is a sense of fair play. Hare’s story takes in visits to the homes of Israeli writers such as David Grossman, and a trip to the Arab town of Nablus. There he is shocked to see a poster of Saddam Hussein.

“At least I know why the wall has gone up,” he says. “The Israelis want to separate themselves from people who display posters of Saddam Hussein. Who can blame them?”

Then he is back in Israel, this time via roads built just for Israelis. “When a people have suffered as much as we have” — Hare is now quoting Grossman — “it’s not a bad feeling to be masters for once. And we have become addicted to that feeling, like a narcotic.”

Grossman’s response is a bold and honest one to a difficult question about Israeli occupation. Much more bold than Hare’s own answer to an equally pressing question, one, he says, that was put to him by his American agent. Why concern himself so much with Israel? Why not Kashmir? This is the question the Left in this country — and lets face it, the anti-Israel Left — has never answered.

It is worth remembering the context to all this. Hare is standing on the stage that recently hosted Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children, which caused so much offence to so many — though not all — Jews. And like Hare’s agent, and like me, those Jews would like to know, why the obsession with Israel? Which is not to excuse Israel of wrongdoing, but why not, for instance, target the much more oppressive Chinese?

Pen poised, I waited for the answer. “Put it this way,” says Hare. “I recognise it. It answers to something in me.”

That’s it? I felt like the man who climbed Everest to ask a guru the meaning of life. And when the guru said: “Chicken soup,” and the man queried, “Chicken soup?”, the guru said: “You mean it’s not chicken soup?” I felt like that man.

Except, at least, chicken soup is worth writing down.

Last updated: 2:31pm, March 19 2009