Israelis defy Shakespeare festival boycotters

Habima hope their ‘Merchant of Venice’ will be strong enough to hold London audiences despite the protesters

By John Nathan, May 29, 2012
Habima's Merchant of Venice

Habima's Merchant of Venice

The production of The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London is going to be a tense affair, and not just because Shylock is determined to get his pound of flesh. As Israel’s Habima theatre company prepares its contribution to the international Globe-to-Globe Shakespeare festival, anti-Israel protesters are preparing to stop the show.

Whether avocados or academics, there is not much that arrives in Britain from Israel that does not attract protest. Last year demonstrators forced the BBC to suspend a live Proms broadcast of a performance by the Israeli Philharmonic. So when it was announced that there would be a Hebrew production in the Globe’s ambitious festival, which sees Shakespeare’s 37 plays performed in as many languages by theatre companies from all over the world, and that it would be performed by Israel’s national theatre, organisers would have known that some kind of protest was likely.

But this is different. Leading British actors and directors, including Emma Thompson and Mark Rylance, have called for the Globe to withdraw the invitation to Habima, citing the handful of productions that Habima have performed in the Israeli West Bank settlement of Ariel as the main reason.

“If I may say, I don’t think this is the real reason for the attempted boycott,” says Habima’s artistic director Ilan Ronen. “The reason they tried to boycott the Philharmonic was just because it represented Israel. There was no Ariel when we came to the National Theatre in London five years ago for a festival of play readings. They tried to boycott that too.”

It is late in the evening and the director has just arrived home after watching his own production of The Merchant of Venice on Habima’s small Bartonov stage in Tel Aviv. The show will have to expand considerably when it reaches the Globe. But if Ronen sounds weary it is not because of the workload involved in preparing Habima’s first performance in Britain since the establishment of Israel.

(There were performances in the ’20s and ’30s when it was a Hebrew-performing Moscow company. In fact Habima may be the only national theatre that is older than its nation.)

More likely Ronen is tired of being made to talk about off-stage politics instead of the play itself. For well before the calls for a boycott in Britain, Israeli protesters, many of them involved in the arts, also opposed performances in settlements, though not just by Habima. So whatever Ronen’s personal view about the performances, his arguments as head of Israel’s national theatre are well practised.

“Habima is a very open theatre,” he says. “We’ve done a lot of productions that have been controversial and which deal with settlements. Boycotting is a big mistake. It’s fine to protest, to express your feelings. But it’s not fine to shut the mouths of anyone.”

Away from the protests, there is yet more controversy. Ronen has chosen to represent Israel with a play that is considered by many to be antisemitic.“I knew it would be a controversial choice but it is definitely not an antisemitic play,” he says. “It deals with antisemitism and racism. It allows you to show how a society treats minorities, not only Venetian Jews.” It is a lesson, says Ronen, that will be equally relevant when the production returns home after London.

“In Israel there is a lot of immigration from Eritrea and North Africa. The play questions how you treat minorities. This is its genius.”

If the choice of play, which Ronen made with the Globe’s artistic director Dominic Dromgoole, is strange for some, perhaps stranger still is the fact that after nearly 40 years working in the theatre, including seven years as artistic director of Habima, this is the first time that Ronen has directed a work by Shakespeare.

“This is true,” says the director candidly. “It’s very difficult to explain. I saw productions of The Merchant of Venice in the past and I wasn’t very happy with them. I thought they were often boring, too conservative, not experimental enough. I don’t think there has been any interpretation of the play that I don’t know. I can give you a lecture on all of them, including the London productions and the actors involved. Maybe I had to wait for the challenge of this situation. I thought I should do it only if I really had something to say, and my own visual interpretations.”

Ronen is confident that, however his version is received, there has never been a Merchant of Venice like the one he is bringing to London. It features a Sephardi Shylock played by Israeli stand-up comedian Yaakov Cohen, which has also raised an eyebrow or two in Israel. Whether, as happens in the Tel Aviv pre-London run, Ronen’s actors will invade the audience space, remains to be seen. Probably not, says Ronen, though as much for artistic reasons as security concerns.

Despite the fact that artistically, geographically and even politically Habima’s Merchant is very much uncharted territory, Ronen betrays no anxiety as the London run of just two performances draws near.

“I’m worried only to the extent that I hope we will be able to perform the show and that it won’t be stopped too many times, and disturb the audience”, he says. “None of us in the show has had any experience of people attempting to stop us performing. We will have to deal with it. And hopefully — at least I want to believe — the show will be strong enough to make people interested in what is happening on the stage and to not let the protesters disturb it too much. But we just don’t know what is going to happen.”

For Ronen, the protests would make more sense if Israel was not the only target. Though he does not want to name theatres from other countries — “we are all colleagues and artists shouldn’t boycott other artists” — the absence of protests directed elsewhere is evidence of a kind of hypocrisy, he says.
But in the end the play’s the thing. “I hope people will enjoy it and that there will not be too many intermissions”, he says. And then, adding with a hefty dose of irony: “Though I’m afraid audiences might get two shows for one ticket.”

Last updated: 3:16pm, May 29 2012