The curtain goes up late in Israel. Performances start at 8.30p.m. or 9p.m. On a Saturday this is considered so early by the partygoers of Tel Aviv that it is dubbed ‘the matinée’. Intervals are often dropped, too. Audiences go in for a short, sharp hit and are then released into the night.
We could learn a thing or two from Israeli theatre. I don’t just mean start times. I am talking about the performances on stage. Fresh and interesting, stylish and slick, urgent and passionate — the dance and theatre coming out of this country, barely 50 years old, is breathtaking.
I travelled to the Galilee, to disused garages in rundown neighbourhoods in Tel Aviv, to an Arab–Israeli theatre in Jaffa, to a new children’s theatre in Holon. Jerusalem might provide centre-stage for the Israel Festival — playing host to productions from around the world — but you have to travel about the country to get a sense of the real artists at work.
Rina Yerushalmi is as good a place as any to start. She’s the Peter Brook of Israel; a director who rehearses her Itim Ensemble actors for a year before she lets them perform in front of an audience. She gave the Israel Festival the world première of her production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. The likelihood of it ever being staged in London is slim — we are hardly short of Chekhov — but I shall lobby for it to do so. It’s such a flawless treatment of Chekhov: every move and every syllable is delivered so carefully, with the tension building slowly and powerfully.
Chekhov is rarely performed in Israel. And, ironically, it is the Israelis who are most in need of him, according to Yerushalmi. ‘We have an intense sense of time in Israel — we have to be useful, produce, make the most of time — it’s the complete opposite to Chekhov, where nothing happens. But we have an illusion here that we are doing so much. We present so many images of action but nothing changes. We are in the same spot we have always been in, just worse. It’s no different to Chekhov.’
I spoke to the choreographer Avshalom Pollak, who revealed similar ideas about the pressure to make use of time in Israel. ‘Life is like a volcano here,’ he told me. ‘Layers and layers of tension. It is a struggle to survive — not just yourself, but your work.’
Pollak works with the exciting young Israeli choreographer Inbal Pinto. Their production of What Is Good About the Moon in Jerusalem’s Beit Shmuel Theatre, which overlooks the old city, almost left me singing. Such brilliant and playful use of dance, such a cheeky look at human relations, such a young and gutsy vision wrapped so wonderfully in fabrics and materials: life is short so hurl yourself at it. In the autumn, Inbal Pinto, along with Israel’s leading contemporary dance company Batsheva — whose new work Three I also saw and was very impressed by — will be going to New York.
Finally, I must mention a mesmerising fringe puppet drama, Eshet (which means ‘wife of’), created by Elit Veber, which I saw in Tel Aviv. Two dancers/actors. Five papier-m