There can’t be many more wholesome children’s stories than that of Heidi, the young Swiss girl whose bonhomie and innocent, joyful demeanor casts a spell on almost everyone who meets her. Johanna Spyri’s novel, which was published in 1880, is one of the most popular works of literature of all time and has been portrayed numerous times on the silver screen – the first of which came out in 1937 with Shirley Temple in the star role – and on stage.
It has been adapted for television, including in series formats, and there have been three animation versions.
The children’s section of this year’s Israel Festival features a brand new local stage adaptation of Heidi, in the form of a play written by Ido Riklin and directed by Rafi Niv, in cooperation with the Yoram Levinstein Actors Studio. The first three performances will take place at the Mediatheque Center in Holon on Saturday (10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.), with a further show scheduled for June 8 (5:30 p.m.) at the Jerusalem Theater. The show is for children aged 8 and over.
Niv has no problem identifying with his young audiences, and set out on his own theatrical road when he was not much taller than the proverbial grasshopper’s knee.
“I had a subscription to Beersheba Theater from grade three,” he recalls. It was there that he caught a highly dramatic work The House of Bernarda Alba by celebrated Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, who was killed in the Spanish Civil War in 1936, just two months after he completed the work.
“That performance really impacted on me,” continues Niv. “I have been in the world of theater ever since.”
Thespian endeavor has not only provided Niv with a way of paying the bills, it also provided him with some much-needed support. He says that as a kid he wasn’t at all popular with his peers, and that that unhappy early experience has colored him, both as a person and as a professional.
“The child in me is always around,” he declares. “I think that all the children’s productions I have put on over the years feature children who are a little out of the ordinary, children who are faced with challenges. For me, childhood is a time of life which presents you with tough challenges.
“There was The Red Balloon, about Pascal the boy who is followed around by a red balloon, and Lottie and Lisa [by Erich Kastner, which tells the tale of twin girls separated at birth] and [Kastner’s] The Flying Classroom, they are all about figures for whom life brings difficult things to deal with. Heidi is the same.”
Niv fully admits to enjoying a therapeutic ride through his work.
“I would say that doing all these plays is beneficial for me, and helps to put right some of the things I experienced as a child,” he says. “I proffer things to children today, and present them with events which they may be able to identify with.
These are the things I didn’t have myself as a kid.”
But, surely, the children of today live in a very different world to that in which the now 48-year-old Niv grew up. Today’s kids are exposed to umpteen stimuli, on computers, cell phones and elsewhere and, so we are told, the average attention span of today’s juniors is on the wane. Niv begs to differ.
“I find that children’s audiences these days are curious and are involved. If you give them quality theater, which has been carefully crafted, just like theater for adults, you have partners in an odyssey, and excellent partners too. They have absolutely no problem with long shows, and certainly not with complex plots. My encounters with children are always wonderful.
I have more problems with their teachers than with the children.”
Niv feels that the problem is not with over-exposure to exaggerated stimuli, but with the overall quality of entertainment aimed at the younger crowd these days.
“I think there is a lot of stuff out there which just doesn’t relate to children and youth with respect. When you give them something of a high standard, whether it is the actual text or the approach to the work, and the directing, they identify with it and appreciate it.”
While Niv, and his longtime collaborator Riklin, are constantly looking to convey an important message to their audiences, on some level or other, Niv steers a wide berth around the idea of delving too deeply into the didactic mindset.
“Ido and I always choose works that address children on their own terms. That is the source of Spyri’s ability, through the character of Heidi, to touch people so deeply.”
That, for Niv often means delivering the storyline as is.
“We don’t always take the politically correct road,” he notes. “We don’t disguise the pain the characters feel, we present their circumstances as they naturally unfold. We want to get the children on board, and we can only do that playing things straight, with no frills. If I want to get any message across it is to the parents.
I want them to look at their children, and the other children in the audience, and the ones on the stage, and to relate to them in respectful manner, and not talk down to them. That’s the most important thing, and I also want to expose the children to a world of emotions and bring them in to that dialogue.”
That, for Niv, also means not manipulating the chronological or cultural context of the original work.
“Yes, it’s true that we live in Israel and not in Switzerland, like Heidi, and this is not the late 19th century, but I believe you can leave the story in a different place and at a different time and the kids will know how to make the link to what is going on in their own lives today. There is a certain magic to going into another world.”
Elsewhere in the children’s section of this year’s Israel festival you can find the likes of Where’s the Sea? written and directed by Hanoch Reim, The Library Lion musical, for children aged five and up, directed by Roni Pinkovitch, and rock musical King of the Jews, which is based on the life of Theodor Herzl, which premiered in 1992 and includes lyrics by now Finance Minister Yair Lapid, and is directed by Aya Kaplan.
For tickets and more information: (03) 502- 1552 and www.mediatheque.org.il