Theatre ban ‘like Nazi book burning’ say West End stars

Actors clash over calls to stop Israeli company coming to Globe


Simon Callow

Simon Callow

Leading figures of the British stage have strongly denounced calls for Israel's national theatre company, Habima, to be removed from the line-up of the Globe to Globe Shakespeare Festival for political reasons.

Playwright Sir Arnold Wesker, and actors Steven Berkoff and Maureen Lipman, have suggested that the attempt to block Israeli actors from performing The Merchant of Venice for the Cultural Olympiad is tantamount to Nazi-era book-burning.

Actor Simon Callow said: "I am strongly opposed to any attempt to ban the work of any artist, especially artists with the distinguished record for challenging and fearlessly exploratory work of the Habima company, whose work we have not seen for far too long. If there is to be confrontation, it must be done through the agreed channels of discussion and debate. Let us see what Habima has to tell us about human life, before we try to silence them."

Their criticism follows the publication of a letter in the Guardian, signed by 37 actors and directors including Emma Thompson, Richard Wilson, Miriam Margolyes and Mark Rylance which stated that by hosting Habima after it had performed in settlements, the Globe was "associating itself with policies of exclusion practised by the Israeli state".

The letter added: "We ask the Globe to withdraw the invitation so that the festival is not complicit with human rights violations."

In total, 37 plays will be staged in 37 languages during the six-week event. In addition to the Israelis taking on Shylock in Hebrew, the Palestinian Ashtar Theatre company will perform Richard II.

The call for a boycott of Habima, which was founded by Jews in Moscow in 1905, was condemned by Sir Arnold, who said that "depriving an audience of an artistic experience is like the Nazis burning the books of the finest minds and talents of Europe".

Sir Arnold, who wrote his own play, The Merchant, from Shylock's perspective, said that artists who demanded boycotts of the arts "seem not to understand the nature of their profession.

"If the arts help deepen our awareness of human pain, and help sharpen sensitive thought, why should we wish to deprive such tools from those we think need to be aware of the pain and insensitivity in which they are participating?" he asked.

Mr Berkoff, who wrote a play dedicated to "Shakespeare's Villains", called the letter "dangerous rubbish to identify artists with the policies of a government". Having worked in Israel, he said he was aware that most Israeli actors, like him, opposed the policies of the current Israeli

"This has a kind of stench to it which reminds me of the hundreds of other times when Jews were excluded for whatever reason, as writers, actors and painters, from the Russian tsar to Hitler onwards."

"There is a shadow that is from antisemitism that casts itself over the Jewish topic and particularly Israel, which stops people seeing clearly," he added. "It's nasty to ban actors, – they are the messengers of drama and literature, they are the messengers of the light and philosophy of a nation."

Both he and Maureen Lipman questioned whether the letter's signatories had voiced their opposition to the involvement of groups from countries including Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Russia and China, given their respective human rights records.

Mr Berkoff called it hypocritical and "wonky thinking".

"They should be ashamed of themselves, the people of the book are banning the book," said Ms Lipman. "It's disgusting. It's totally simplistic to think that by banning a group of actors you are making a world statement.

"I don't notice them trying to ban Israeli inventions which are changing the world," she added. She said that the signatories were neither helping their cause nor the cause of art. "Let them have a voice, and when Habima get here, have a debate like mature people."

The Globe has said it has no intention of withdrawing the invitation, although there are concerns about disruption during the show, in the manner of the protest during the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's Proms performance last September.

Last updated: 5:27pm, April 10 2012