Tuesday, 24 April 2012

A Bit of Drama

The Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv has an international reputation for staging high quality, cutting edge drama and some innovative takes on selected classic musicals. Over the years I have seen a number of great plays there  - Ghetto, The Warm Family, Was it a Dream, Havdala and a fantastic Hebrew production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Before you get too impressed, please note that I attended performances with English surtitles.  The Cameri has a couple of performances with this facility most weeks, which is great for those of us who are not (yet) fluent in Hebrew. On my recent visit to Tel Aviv I managed to see two performances - a revival of the musical Cabaret, immortalised in Bob Fosse's 1972 movie version, and Aristocrats, an Israeli drama by Edna Mazya. Mazya incidentally also authored the aforementioned Was it a Dream - perhaps the best play I have seen at the Cameri.

Cabaret was staged in the theatre's main auditorium and is one of Tel Aviv's current hottest tickets. I have seen two other productions of Cabaret - the 2006-8 London revival with Tom Dreyfus and Sheila Hancock outstanding as the Emcee and Fraulein Schneider, and a student version in Bangkok (!) in 2001, which was surprisingly good if a little "displaced" with the songs being sung in Thai.

The current Cameri version is a triumph. For me it compares very favourably with the London version referred to above, with excellent performances from newcomer Ola Schur-Selektar in the role of Sally Bowles and veteran Miki Kam in the role of Fraulein Schneider. (Hear Ola singing a Leah Goldberg lyric here). Ola Schur-Selektar was convincing as the self-obsessed, lonely, thoughtless and ultimately sad Sally Bowles. Her voice is extremely powerful and worked especially well in the big show stopping number "Maybe this time" (hear Liza Minelli's performance here), which was heartbreakingly sad as those of us who know the story knew that "this time" wasn't going to end well either. Miki Kam was endearing in the role of the, not quite prim and proper Fraulein Schneider and I am told that some years ago she played the Sally Bowles role, so this was a nice touch.

Aki Avni as Cliff Bradshaw, the erstwhile narrator in the movie, and based on Christopher Isherwood, author of the two novels that the play references "Goodbye to Berlin" and "Mr Norris changes trains" was good, but the real star of the show was Itay Tiran, outstanding as the Emcee. By turns amusing and  threatening, captivating throughout, his character holds a mirror up to German society in this period, showing the acceptance and approval of, or compromises it made with evil and the devastating finale of this period. He is not a character for good, but is the only one facing up to what is really happening around him.

Another good performance came from Motti Katz in the role of Max. We see Max at the beginning of the play, using Cliff to smuggle goods into Germany and are encouraged to think of him as a good hearted villain as he helps Cliff secure lodgings and shows him a good time in Berlin. But we also witness his slide into acceptance of Nazism, taking advantage of the opportunities it offers him for financial gain and the vicious turn this takes as he moves on to visiting violence on former friends. This descent into darkness is also played out at the engagement party of  Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, who happens to be Jewish. When Max realises that Schultz is a Jew he tells the Fraulein the she can't and mustn't marry him, whilst Fraulein Kost (convincingly played by Irit Kaplan), lodger and hooker, leads the party in a chilling rendition of the Nazi song "Tomorrow belongs to me". Chilling, as she begins singing alone and one by one the guests step forward to join her in the song, leaving Schultz, Schneider, Sally and Cliff looking on. All this whilst they drink the wine, eat the food and enjoy the hospitality of Herr Schultz.

As ever, the songs are truly great and all are well performed, with a few clever plays on words, inserting Hebrew rhymes into songs sung partly in German and English. For those of you who know Hebrew, you might be amused by the witty rhyming couplet of one of Sally's songs "Farewell my liebe herr, lehitraot haver (להתראות חבר) which seemed to catch the attention of a large part of the audience. And speaking of the songs, the "chorus", that is the dancing girls and boys of the kit kat club were truly excellent, glamorous, funny, raucous and convincing in their roles as "entertainers" for which read prostitutes. (That's meant as a compliment by the way!). Anyone living in or visiting Tel Aviv during the run of this production MUST go to see it!

Aristocrats was something very different. A fast moving, one act play lasting just 90 minutes, it told the story of the Ben-Canaan family from the 1950's through to the 1970's. Parents Yair and Hagar are committed Zionists, working hard to build the state, serving in the army, representing the country overseas to raise much needed funds and in the case of Yair eventually serving as a government minister. All laudable you might say, but playwright Mazya shows this to be at the expense of their children - Oz and Debby who are left on the kibbutz whenever the parents are away (which is often) and also Yair's gay brother Rudi.

Rudi is a failed business man, trying to recreate his former Berlin fur business in steaming hot Tel Aviv, running up debts and getting into trouble with gangsters. Persuaded by Hagar, Yair eventually bails him out but only on condition he marry and live a "normal" life, so as not to embarrass the family. Married off to the inconvenient and unstable Helena, a young Holocaust survivor, he is unable to cope and commits suicide. Yair forbids his name to be mentioned or for him to be discussed ever again.

Wind forward to the 1970's and Yair is at the height of his career in Government, son Oz (extremely well played by Ido Rosenburg) is gay, living in America and has a career as a dancer and daughter Debby is a left wing journalist campaigning for Palestinian causes and in conflict with her father. The denouement of the play comes with a what could be seen as a double act of betrayal as Debby becomes involved with a terrorist organisation and Yair, turns her in to the security services. Yair is struck down with a stroke that removes his ability to speak and although reconciled to his son, turns his back on his daughter.

The play deals with issues on a macro and a micro level. The problem of communication between generations is clearly played out as is the challenge of communication between political enemies, but I found the issues presented a little too obviously and without acknowledgement or examination of the motives of the parents. Hagar, the mother, has a moment of truth when she admits that she thought of her children as an inconvenience, which is brave and probably true, but I felt that the play dealt harshly with the generation that had to literally, fight to establish a safe homeland and to develop a modern society from very little. Worth seeing but I left feeling I needed more explanation.

One of the quirky things I like about the Cameri is that if you go to an evening performance, when you leave, there is almost always a bagel seller outside, shouting "bagelim, bagelim" which is infinitely nicer than being assailed by the dreadful stench of hot dog and hamburger carts in central London late at night. There are also often extremely good musicians playing in the square after performances. I have a lasting memory of leaving a play a few years ago to discover many couples - several of them in their 60s and beyond - dancing to the trad-jazz/ kezmer inflected "Midnight in Moscow". I'd like to stand in Red Square at midnight and listen to this...but then I'm a bit of a romantic.


  1. I read about the play. Great history about the family. Do you ever see the movie "Walk on water"
    Recommanded much!
    greetings from Israel, almost going home!
    Leaving my daughter&husband there.

  2. Hi - glad you had a good trip and hope the Netherlands are warmer than London is today. Yes, I saw Walk on water quite recently - very interesting and with an unexpected twist at the end!