Broadway star Tovah Feldshuh is bringing her acclaimed portrayal of the Israeli leader to London
Shakespeare asked: “What’s in a name?” Tovah Feldshuh has the answer. “There’s plenty in a name,” says the Broadway star. “By changing my name I changed the whole landscape of my life. I didn’t realise it then, I was only 18.”
The woman born Terri Sue and raised in the affluent New York suburb of Scarsdale, changed her name to Tovah because that was what they called her at Sunday school — and because her boyfriend at the time thought Terri Sue’s Hebrew name sounded much more exotic than Terri Sue.
“My breakthrough roles have come when my name and the roles I play are held as one identity,” says Feldshuh.
The actress has just got off the plane to London from New York. She is still in her travelling clothes — a figure-hugging black cat suit, her tiny feline frame curled up on a sofa in her hotel penthouse suite. Despite the journey, there is no sign of tiredness.
She speaks in torrents, answering questions without pause even before they are asked. The roles Feldshuh are talking about are Jewish. Roles like Yentl, which she created on stage in 1974.
And although the word “breakthrough” seems a misnomer for a career that includes four Tony nominations and award-winning performances in the film Kissing Jessica Stein, the acclaimed TV mini-series Holocaust and her regular appearances in the television crime series Law and Order, Feldshuh is also talking about the role to which she most often returns — Golda Meir.
William Gibson’s one-woman play Golda’s Balcony is not only a portrait of Israel’s former Prime Minister, but charts the dilemmas — moral and military — with which she grappled during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
It is a role that demands of its actor to play what was for many Israel’s greatest leader, and also portray the generals — like Moshe Dayan — and the politicians — like US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — with whom Meir negotiated her country’s fate.
When the play, directed by Scott Schwartz (son of Stephen, the award-winning composer of Wicked) transferred to Broadway in 2003, the production coincided with the war’s 30th anniversary. It ran for 17 months, becoming the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history. Now it is coming to London.
But there is something Feldshuh wants to make absolutely clear. Anyone who saw her in London a few years ago in her one-woman-concert called Mining Golda has not seen Golda’s Balcony.
The former is a show she wrote for herself, which included 14 songs from the Great American Songbook. To illustrate, she bursts into one of the show’s numbers: “Let the river run, Let all the dreamers wake the nation, Come, the new Jerusalem…” And then, just as abruptly, the powerful voice returns to speaking mode. “It’s not that show, Ok?”
“That show I performed two years ago when I had the honour of being hired by the UJIA to come and sing a concert. Mining Golda was all about my insights into Golda Meir — how I got the part, my (working) relationship with the playwright, Golda’s relationship with her older sister; how Ben-Gurion influenced her. It’s a darn good piece, but it is not Golda’s Balcony.”
She makes the point with a seriousness that suggests there will be trouble for anyone who makes that mistake. “Ok?”
Feldshuh produces a picture of herself in character as the Israeli Prime Minister. The resemblance is uncanny — the round hips, the bulbous nose, the tightly drawn grey hair.
“I’ve got false legs, a false body, huge breasts — I could do a topless spread of Miss October, November and December — a wig, ageing makeup and a fake nose.” In the picture she looks like everyone’s favourite bubeleleh. Only this matriarch was responsible for a whole nation, not just a family.
“It’s interesting. That’s what a reviewer said,” says Feldshuh. She pauses to quote accurately a review from the The New York Times. “‘She does more than just resurrect Golda Meir, she embodies an entire nation.’” If, to the English ear, it sounds immodest to quote good reviews aboutyourself, for a straight-talking American like Feldshuh, it is just the plain and simple truth. In New York, enough people agreed for Feldshuh to win her fourth Tony nomination and a Drama Desk theatre award.
“Anyway, I love this play. I honestly hope this will be my best performance. That’s what happens when a role is allowed to marinate in your soul.”
When Feldshuh talks about Golda’s Balcony, it is with a fervency that betrays not only a commitment to the work, but to Israel too. At one point tears well up as she says: “Israel takes the bullets for us.” But Feldshuh realises that attitudes here are very different from attitudes in New York.
“I’m thrilled to be doing it in London, but I know that it’s different here. I’ve been asked to be here for three weeks. On Broadway I was asked for 17 months. Same play, different climate. It’s a different community.” Has playing Meir changed her opinion abut the Middle East, or the way Israel is judged?
“That’s something, the way Israel is judged. Some of the biggest fights I’ve had about the Middle East have been with actors from this country. They’re very pro-Palestinian and they do that classic mistake of comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa, which is patently absurd and unacceptable.”
“I can’t say.”
“I can’t say. But Vanessa Redgrave has been very good in our country. She has been told to be quiet, I think… Somebody must have sat her down because she’s stopped being so vociferous about it [the Middle East]. Because it was extremely unpopular.”
It is becoming clear that for Feldshuh, playing Meir, is not just another role. It’s more of a calling. “That’s right. I try to embody her. It’s a very difficult piece. But again, I want to emphasise. Anyone who has seen me sing and dance has not seen this play. Ok?”
Golda’s Balcony is at the Shaw Theatre, London NW1 from June 7. Tel: 0871 594 3123