Dedicated to Hanoch Levin, the iconic Israeli playwright who died in 1999 at age 55, the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv is presenting a 10-day international event based exclusively on his work.
The Hanoch Levin International Festival will take place June 17 – June 26, with 20 productions of Levin’s plays.
The shows will be performed by six theater companies from abroad – from France, Poland, Russia and Slovenia – as well as a wide spectrum of local theatrical outfits. The latter include some of the powerhouses in the field, such as Habima and Beit Lessin, and a handful of left-field theaters, including the Mikro Theater and both the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem branches of the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio, with the Gesher Theater and Yiddishpiel also in the mix.
It is a far cry from the days when Levin was around and playing the role of the enfant terrible with such aplomb. Levin was not only a gifted writer and director, but he was also highly adept at treading on the establishment’s toes and stirring up emotions and thoughts that the powers-that-be, and the bastions of society, generally preferred to let lie.
One of Levin’s most contentious works, Queen of the Bathtub , for example, was staged at the Cameri Theater in May 1970, while the country was largely still in a state of post-Six Day War euphoria.
Queen of the Bathtub went against the national grain and poked fun at the dramatic victory on the battlefield and criticized Israeli occupation of the territories taken during the war.
There was an outcry from officialdom, and the Cameri eventually closed the show after just 19 performances.
But, as Chaucer sagely noted more than six centuries ago, time and tide wait for no man and, to put things in a more contemporary perspective, yesterday’s risqué venture eventually morphs into more of the today’s passé, been there done that, variety.
Varda Fish is the artistic director of the festival and is responsible for selecting the Levin oeuvre lineup for he 10-day program. While Levin is generally considered to be a quintessentially Israeli writer who examines local-specific issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Fish evidently believes that the ideas the playwright depicts had wider appeal. Today, Levin’s plays are performed around the world in places such as Poland, Mexico, Spain and France, and the presence of six foreign theater companies on the festival roster would seem to infer that non-Israelis also have a handle on Levin’s art.
“There are plenty of universal themes in Levin’s work,” says Fish, “but the universality of Hanoch Levin is not a simple issue because until his death, more or less, he was hardly known outside Israel. There were some performances in small places in Poland and France before he died, but he was mostly unknown.”
Universal themes or no, there is always the not insignificant matter of presenting the written material not only in a visual form that conveys the author’s intent – naturally, as the director in question sees fit – but the audience also has to be able to understand the spoken word.
“To do that, you have translate the plays, and we turned to all sorts of translators,” Fish continues. “We tried to do that, first, in German, French, Polish and English. To this day, English is a problem because of the texture of Levin’s language and in German also.”
Then again, there are those common denominators that help to bridge linguistic gaps.
“If you take, for example, an extreme case – [Levin’s play] Murder ,” suggests Fish. “You would think nothing could be more local than Murder , which is about the conflict between us and the Palestinians. But Murder is produced in Poland and France and many other countries, not as the conflict between Palestinians and Jews but looking at the wider perspective, universal issues, of not just conflict but the individual in society and stereotypical views of people, many issues that relate to anybody and at any time. The Nowy Theatre in Lodz [in Poland] put on Murder , and it was a universal production.”
The Polish institution subsequently performed another Levin play, which will feature in the upcoming festival.
“After that, they did a production of Labor of Life , which is about issues that are so universal,” says Fish. “It is about a couple who reach the age of 60-plus, who are tired of each other but still have some passion left, sexual and otherwise, and they look for a partner with whom they can express that. The play has been put on in, I think, four different places in Poland.”
Labor of Life gets four airings at the festival with two performances each, by the Beit Lessin Theater, starring Sasson Gabai and Leora Rivlin, and by the Teatr Narodowy, National Theatre of Poland from Warsaw. It should be interesting to see the differences in the renditions and the different cultural elements each one brings to the onstage fray.
While, as Fish notes, transposing Levin’s words and sentiments into English and German has proven to be a formidable challenge, there have been no such obstacles to rendering them in Polish. That, considering the playwright’s background, is hardly surprising.
“Both Levin’s parents came from Poland, and I am sure he would have heard Polish spoken at home,” observes the artistic director. “The characters, the refugee characters, the local communities, the traditional- conventional characters – all these elements in Levin’s plays are very Polish.”
That not only made his work a more convenient vehicle for Polish theater companies, but it also makes life easier for translators.
“Levin’s dramas have the rhythm of Polish,” says Fish.
“There are two translators of Levin’s plays into Polish. One is an Israeli who lives in Poland, and the other is a Polish woman who lives here, and she told me that the syntax of the Hebrew line is very similar to Polish. All she had to do was replace the Hebrew text with Polish, word for word. I think that comes across in the Polish productions.”
One thing is for sure – there will not be a dull moment over the 10 days of the festival.
Another comparative slot in the program features three very different renditions of Requiem – with Slovenian and Israeli staged productions and a screening of a Mexican version, as well as a Yiddish performance of Solomon Grip by the Yiddishpiel Theater, Russian and Hebrew versions of Suitcase Packers , a French take on T he Whore of Ohio , and Polish and Hebrew productions of Poper .
There will also be fringe productions and lectures, as well as readings of as yet unproduced Levin plays. Fish is excited about the event and says she hopes there will be more of that in the future.
“We hope to make an annual festival. Levin deserves it.”For tickets and more information about the festival: (03) 606-1910; 1- 700-707-990 and www.cameri.co.il