In the end, it was a triumph of art over politics.
Israel’s national theatre company, Habima, performed in Hebrew at Shakespeare’s Globe on Monday and Tuesday, receiving standing ovations after both shows.
Despite months of protest from groups supporting a cultural boycott of Israel, including a letter to the Guardian from prominent names in the British arts world, urging the Globe to rescind the invitation, Habima gave a colourful and entertaining rendition of The Merchant of Venice.
Their appearance came just over three weeks after the Palestinian Ashtar Theatre took on Richard II in Arabic at the Globe – just two of the 37 Shakespeare plays performed in 37 languages for the Cultural Olympiad Globe to Globe festival.
Warned in advance of the likelihood of troublemakers hoping to disrupt proceedings as they did at the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s Proms concert last year, the Globe arranged for tight, airport-style security, and interspersed with ticket-holders were police and burly security guards.
Around two dozen anti-Israel protesters across both evenings attempted to disrupt the play at various intervals, with small pockets of people standing up and shouting “shame on you Habima” and “Palestinians need justice too”.
Some of the activists also waved Palestinian flags or held up signs that read “Israel is an apartheid state” and “free Palestine”.
Several of these protests were staged while Shylock was on stage describing the antisemitism of the Venetians.
On the first night, six shouting protesters refused to leave the theatre, but security physically removed them. On the second, security acted quickly to escort troublemakers out of the venue.
Outside the Globe, both pro and anti-Israel groups staged demonstrations, with groups such as Jews for Boycotting Israel Goods and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign handing out fliers claiming: “Mr William Shakespeare says No! to occupation and colonisation”.
The Zionist Federation and other pro-Israel supporters countered this their message: “Culture unites, Boycotts divides”.
A 22-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of assault outside the Globe after a security guard was injured. He was bailed pending further inquiries until June 7.
Throughout, the actors maintained their composure, playing to a full house including Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub, the Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Danny Rich, scientist Sir Robert Winston and actress Maureen Lipman.
Before both curtains, the Globe’s artistic director Dominic Dromgoole implored the audience to act with decorum and, in particular, to let security deal with any protesters.
He declared: “If there is anybody here to protest I’d just like to say to them, these are not politicians you are seeing on stage tonight, these are actors whose jobs it is a to tell a story.”
Listing other companies which have performed at the Globe over the course of the festival, including the Ashtar theatre, he added: “They have been listened to with respect and enthusiasm and we hope that we can accord the same respect and the same enthusiasm to people who speak in Hebrew.”
By and large, his words were heeded and as the actors danced off the stage after their final bow, the crowd clapped and cheered.
“At the end it was amazing,” said artistic director Ilan Ronen after the second performance. “It was just so moving and so exciting – the audience didn’t let the actors go.
“It was a big celebration of theatre; this is what won in the end and all the other aspects didn’t matter.
“This festival is a very important event and I believe also politically, in a good way,” he said. “One of the duties of the artist is to create dialogue between countries and especially countries that are in conflict. Art should create a bridge.”