Jaffa setting for ‘An Iliad’ a push for open dialogue

American Jewish actor Clayton Fox plays The Poet in the English National Theater’s politically charged production

Clayton Fox in a Jaffa production of 'The Iliad' (Chen Sharon)
Clayton Fox in a Jaffa production of 'The Iliad' (Chen Sharon)

JAFFA — American actor Clayton Fox paced back and forth on stage, leaping in the air and occasionally breaking into song during the July 11 premier of the English National Theater’s play “An Iliad” at the East-West House in Jaffa.

With contemporary language and moments of humor, the play is thoroughly modern even as it retells the ancient tale of the Trojan War with a deeper message about the harmful nature of war. In Jaffa, a city famous for its mix of Jewish and Arab-Israeli residents, the well-worn story took on new meaning as ancient history blended into current events.

That’s precisely what Fox had in mind when he first conceived of performing the play here. After a successful off-Broadway run at the New York Theater Workshop, the play, written by Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O’Hare, of the series “True Blood,” is currently being staged internationally by various theater companies. Fox thought it would be a great fit for an Israeli audience.

A graduate of NYU/Tisch with several theater credits and a recent role in the film “The Green” with Julia Ormond, Fox is hoping “An Iliad” will inspire open dialogue about social and political issues in Israel.

“I love the energy in Israel. I like the feeling I get from working on art here. There is a sense that it matters to people. Everything is heightened in Israel and creating art in a heightened environment is always exciting,” Fox, 25, told The Times of Israel.

Fox spent the past year living in Jaffa and volunteering in marginalized communities in Jaffa and Tel Aviv through the MASA Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa program, and also informally mentoring youngsters at the Arab-Hebrew Theater in Jaffa. He knows enough Hebrew to enjoy Israeli theater and claims Jaffa/Tel Aviv as his own, biking around to his favorite hangouts like a native.

Aware his year in Israel was drawing to a close, Fox planned on performing before heading home. At a Masa leadership conference, he met Johannah Jolson, a recent immigrant from England with plans to start a socially-conscious English theater in Tel Aviv, and he shared the idea of staging “An Iliad” with her. Jolson loved the idea and took on the job of producing.

Next came Yaniv Rozenblat, a graduate of the Ben Zvi School of Performing Arts with a native’s feel for Israeli culture, who joined the team as director. Naomi Kern, a Dutch jazz singer, composer and viola player stepped in to play a key musical role.

Playwrights Peterson and O’Hare originally conceived of the show as an artistic response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They reached back 3,000 years to Homer because they saw the Greek tradition of storytelling as natural match for the stage and also because it provided a way to talk about the topic without becoming “preachy and simplistic,” said Fox.

Naomi Kern, a Dutch jazz singer, composer and viola player stepped in to play a key musical role, alongside American actor Clayton Fox. (courtesy)
Naomi Kern, a Dutch jazz singer, composer and viola player stepped in to play a key musical role, alongside American actor Clayton Fox. (Mark Segal)

The play centers around one central figure, The Poet (Fox), who enters the theater from the back of the house, looking world weary and battle scarred. He has a story to tell the audience, but he struggles, frustrated as he tries to form his message. Eventually, he is joined by The Muse (Kern), whose beauty and musical talents allow him to break through his storyteller’s block.

His tale will sound familiar to those with basic knowledge of Homer’s “Iliad” as Fox animatedly describes scenes such as bloodthirsty Achilles heading to battle and Hector parting from his wife during a break in the fighting. But even for those unversed in the Greeks, the theme of war’s cruelty will resonate.

Fox’s virtuoso performance – he inhabits different characters with a range of accents and matching physical movements – makes the experience engaging. He exposes the human heart behind the political hype.

“I have to switch in and out of characters, which is a technical and emotional challenge. I really have to push myself, but it is really rewarding,” he says.

Fox not only inhabits different characters but also moves through different places and times. For example, he will depart Ancient Greece to narrate World War I and then track back to the Crusades, all within the space of a few sentences. In one memorable scene, as The Poet describes the scene of thousands of soldiers heading off to fight the Trojan War, the local production pays homage to the many wars fought by Israel.

In the NY production, The Poet, played by O’Hare, named cities and towns in the US to help the audience picture the way war touches people’s lives on a personal level. In the Israeli production, Fox mentions places such as Herzliya, Jerusalem, and the names of specific kibbutzim and moshavim, naming each locale in Hebrew.

Such small touches work wonders at placing current Israeli conflicts into a much larger context. As the tragic events of war are recounted, Fox’s storytelling builds to a feverish pitch, and the play considers the origin of rage and the way it can morph into global conflict. But the narrative ends with no neat message and the audience is left with nothing but painful memories.

Uncomfortable though that may be, Jolson and Fox believe this kind of button-pushing art can play an integral part in opening up discourse about the realities of life in Israel. Both see themselves as part of a new generation of young Jewish artists no longer afraid to critique the status-quo, even when that touches on once-taboo questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

‘The previous generation used to be duty bound not to critique Israel and that’s not the case anymore’

Jolson’s theater company, of which “An Iliad” is the first production, will, in future, stage plays which encourage the audience to think and question; and unlike many other English-language theater companies in Israel, says Jolson, it will also encourage dialogue about social and political problems.

“The previous generation used to be duty bound not to critique Israel and that’s not the case anymore,” Fox adds.

But he maintains that he is not interested in shocking political statements, or in displaying the horrors of war, but rather in using theater to open up space for new thought, and he cites controversial playwright Tony Kushner of “Angels in America” fame, as a master of the form.

“His plays teach us that you don’t have to accept reality as it is. You can imagine the reality you wish to see and show that on stage. You can spark people’s imagination and whatever comes out of that, comes out,“ says Fox.

Fox is a member of a NY-based group of American Jewish and Israeli American actors called 10J, led by noted playwright Anna Ziegler. The 12-member group meets monthly to write and stage short pieces about Israel.

Also, Fox says actors in the broad theater and film worlds are more receptive to the topic than might be expected.

“US artists, a code for liberals, have other fish to fry, like gun control and conflicts in which the US is more directly involved. They don’t know much about Israel and they sometimes say: ‘You’re a Zionist? Really?’ But even those who have heard of it in a negative way, don’t instantly dislike me for it. Artists are by nature empathic and want to seek truth, so there is room for discussion. It’s not verboten,” he explains.

Although Fox will head back to Chicago later this summer to work in theater and films, he expects to return to Israel frequently to perform in future productions. The English Theater is currently planning several new shows. Additionally, although “An Iliad” was planned to run just two or three shows, Jolson and Fox are now considering adding new shows in response to requests from those who didn’t get a chance to see the production.

Despite the challenging nature of the role, Fox would love the opportunity to reprise his run as The Poet.

“I have a special connection to Israel so it’s important for me to tell the story here. I don’t want to tell it in Rome or Paris. I want to tell a story I’m passionate about to an audience about whom I feel passionate. For me, that’s in Israel,” says Fox.

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