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Acclaimed British actress and Oscar award nominee Susannah York stunned members of a sell-out audience at the Cameri theater June 5 when she ended her performance with a dedication to Mordechai Vanunu. Quoting Portia from The Merchant of Venice, York lauded the quality of mercy, and implored Israelis to take the speech to heart. (York chose not to share with her audience Portia's utter disregard for mercy when her time came to mete it out to the Jewish Shylock.)
Without actually mentioning names, York praised the man who has "served his sentence" in Israel, and is still not allowed to enjoy the freedom she claims he deserves, clearly alluding to Vanunu. York, who was presenting a one-woman show on "The Loves of Shakespeare's Women," also prefaced her haunting rendition of Constance's soliloquy to her son, killed in battle, by a reference to contemporary warfare. "Mothers all over the world are still mourning their children who are the victims of war," she said, "In Iraq, in Israel, in Palestine and in Darfur."
In an interview after the show, York told The Jerusalem Post that she did not think she had "hijacked" the performance to air her political views. "A person has to do what they have to do," she said, "and I had to do this."
York dismissed the fact that her audiences felt doubly deceived, given the prevailing anti-Israel climate popular among some British academics and artists. After the first "non-political" half of the evening, there had been a palpable warm welcome for the actress, who had ostensibly come to share her love of Shakespeare here, despite talk of an academic boycott in England.
Then came the Vanunu section.
York declined to confirm whether she had deliberately agreed to stage her evening of Shakespeare in Israel in order to deliver this speech. "I was invited long ago to do the show," she said. Addressing the question of whether a press-conference or political gathering would not have been a more appropriate platform for her impassioned plea on Vanunu's account, York would only say that "no-one listens" in such frameworks. "I wanted people to listen to me," she reiterated.
York has been consistently active on behalf of Vanunu. In April, 2004 she flew in from England to be on hand at Shikmona Prison in Ashkelon, when he was released after 18 years. Vanunu, a former nuclear technician, was convicted of treason for revealing details of Israel's alleged nuclear weapons program to the British press in 1986. Vanunu has continually been at odds with the law over violations of his terms of release.
To a chorus of boos and jeers from angry theater-goers, as well as scattered applause, York concluded her show with an epilogue from As You Like It, imploring the men and women in the audience to "like as much of this play as please you." For many York fans in the Tel Aviv audience, however, there was a lot not to like.