Revived on Rothschild Boulevard, Israel’s national theater finally takes center stage

Revived on Rothschild Boulevard, Israel’s national theater finally takes center stage

A play might not change the world, but it can provoke some fresh thinking, say Rut Tonn and Ilan Ronen, masters of collaboration and innovation at Habima

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The Habima plaza (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
The Habima plaza (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

The recently renovated Habima theater — and the wide open plaza that welcomes its ever-changing audience of visitors, coffee drinkers and passersby — reflects its position as the country’s cultural center.

Situated at the northern end of Rothschild Boulevard, this was where social activist Daphni Leef first pitched her protest tent last summer, and where parents pushing strollers, kids on bikes and pedestrians wander by nearly every single, sunny Tel Aviv day.

Sycamore trees, xx gardens and bike riders at the Habima plaza (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg)
Sycamore trees, well-groomed gardens and bike riders at the Habima plaza (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

That kind of convergence of characters at Habima’s sunken garden and reflecting pool is new, considering it was previously a parking lot. But the sparkling white architecture, sycamore trees and well-populated cafe on site better befit the role that Tel Aviv city planner Patrick Geddes once envisioned for the national theater — as the country’s cultural and public touchstone.

That was part of the idea behind the renovation that was completed last fall, to put Habima back in its place as a center of Israeli culture, and make it work for everyone, said Rut Tonn, the longtime producer at Habima. “Israeli theater is for the masses, it’s not about anything elitist. People want to go to the theater and to laugh.”

That said, there hasn’t been all that much laughter lately at Habima. From the recent UK protests over Habima’s production of “The Merchant of Venice” at England’s Globe Theater this spring — which were prompted by Habima’s performances last winter at a theater in Ariel, an Israeli settlement city — to the royalty debts the theater allegedly owes US playwrights and its ongoing financial woes, times have been tough, admitted Tonn. But she doesn’t sound all that concerned.

Neither does the Habima artistic director, Ilan Ronen. As Israel’s national theater, he said, Habima has to be open and connected to the world at large despite the country’s relative political isolation.

“As artists, we can’t be too self-focused. We have to get into professional dialogues with the world,” he said. “That’s why we take our plays abroad, why we do things like the Globe festival.”

When Habima received the Globe invitation to participate in the festival, the management kept the invite a secret. Even when contacts were signed and publicity started, Tonn said, she wasn’t sure “everyone got the magnitude of it.”

It was only when political groups put pressure on the Globe to cancel the invitation to the Israeli theater, and actor Emma Thompson and fellow Brits signed a letter to that effect, that “the conversation started,” said Tonn.

“We were all scared about what could be, because no one knew,” said Tonn. “More power to the Globe, which never wavered on its decision to have us. It wanted to produce a festival of William Shakespeare’s 37 plays in 37 languages, and it wanted Hebrew in the festival.”

In the end, both of the Habima performances were sold out, and audiences enjoyed the Israeli production, she said, which included a new scene in which masked citizens of Venice surround Shylock, grab his tefillin, tear off his tzitzit and pummel him, leaving the merchant humiliated and broken.

“You really feel badly for him, this villain, this Jew with the money,” said Tonn. “Your heart goes out to him, and that’s how life is — it’s complicated.”

Dafna Leef and other protests last January at the Habima plaza (photo credit: Roni Shutzer/Flash 90)
Daphni Leef and other protests last January at the Habima plaza (photo credit: Roni Shutzer/Flash 90)

Habima and its repertoire of plays are a similar mixed bag, pointed out Ronen. “Our job is to represent Israel’s maturation, the issues of the day, our national history, as well as what is the meaning of being Israeli today,” he said. “I believe the audience isn’t just looking for plays that are light and easy, but the tough stuff as well, the things that are happening two meters away from us,” such as last summer’s social protests on Rothschild Boulevard, or the African refugees seeking a new homeland in Israel — a weighty topic for a Jewish nation made up of former refugees.

“These are issues filled with tension and controversy,” said Ronen. “But it’s the basis for dialogue and that’s something concrete. It was the same with the Globe. They could have chosen a lot of other Shakespearean plays, but they chose one that would have meaningful dialogue and that is fraught with the issue of identity.”

A current pet project of Tonn’s is the staging of “I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity,” a book written by Palestinian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish following the death of three of his daughters in Gaza by Israeli fire. Abuelaish has already met with Habima, and Tonn hopes the play will eventually be staged in various languages, including Hebrew and Arabic, because of the power of his personal story and its ability to stop and make people think about their opinions and reactions.

“He decided not to turn what happened to him into hatred but in a completely different direction,” she said. “I think we can all learn from him, and he has more legitimacy to speak than those nerds in England. He could have been the number one hater of Israel and he didn’t do that.”

“It’s like what we said to the Globe,” Tonn added. “Staging plays — these are our methods to help and make a difference. If just one person in the audience tears up, we’ve done something.”

But she’s ultimately realistic in her vision. “We won’t change people’s political stance, we won’t make peace happen,” she said. “We do things because they move us. A play doesn’t change the world, but it can make you think about other things.”

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