A barren choice

When Ofira Henig opted not to have children so as to dedicate her life to art, she came under immense pressure from Israeli society – a tension she has tried to convey in her adaptation of Lorca’s ‘Yerma.’

ofira henig yerma 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
ofira henig yerma 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
There can’t be many more issues more likely to arouse fierce emotions, at least in this part of the world, than childbirth, and there were few more emotive 20th-century writers than Spanish poet and dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca. Put the two together, season with a highly talented cast of actors and a director who isn’t afraid to test the waters, and you end up with a theater production that entertains and stimulates the emotions and thought processes in equal measure.
“I am delighted when an audience goes home from a show wondering what some part or other of the play was about and then mulls it over for a few days,” says Ofira Henig, director of the Herzliya Ensemble’s version of Lorca’s Yerma, which will be performed on February 2 and 3 at the theater company’s Beit Ha’ezrach auditorium in Herzliya.
Henig also adapted the text for the current production. When a play addresses a topic that is more than likely to touch a raw nerve or two among Jewish audiences, you have to be pretty confident about the way you present the subject matter.
Lorca wrote Yerma (which means “barren” in Spanish) in 1934, describing it as “a tragic poem.” The play tells the story of a childless woman living in a Spanish village whose desperate desire to become a mother turns into an obsession that eventually drives her to commit a horrific crime. Henig says Lorca knew what he was talking about. “He came from a Spanish backwater, from a place where women who didn’t have children were ostracized. Sadly, it also happens here and in other places,” she says.
Henig should know. “I chose not to have children and to dedicate my life to the arts,” she declares. “I came under a lot of pressure from Israeli society in general, although less so from my family, who accepted my right to live my life the way I see fit.”
The director wants to convey some of that through the current production. “It’s a woman’s prerogative not to have a baby. Sometimes women destroy their families and themselves trying to bring a baby into the world. I am trying to defend these women.”
The ensemble and Henig take a seemingly spartan approach to the script, leaving the audience to do some of the work. “In his poems and plays, Lorca’s writing is highly visual,” notes Henig. “When he writes about nature, you can see it and smell it. I didn’t go for realism with this production; I aimed to provide a presentation of reality. I find that words can convey reality far better than stage scenery that replicates reality.”
Indeed, the Henig take on Yerma is very economical on props. “The stage is almost devoid of scenery,” she says, adding somewhat paradoxically, “There is far more emphasis on aesthetics rather than trying to reproduce the storyline in physical form. So when we use an image on the stage, the image gets the message across to the audience very powerfully. Anyway, what could be more powerful than an actor, an image, light and shade? That’s all you need.”
The spoken word is also important. “The theatrical language I use is always very stylized. And I feel it is very important for an actor to work in his or her mother tongue. I have worked in Moscow and Berlin, but when the ensemble goes abroad with our productions, we perform them in Hebrew with subtitles in the local language. In Israel we also provide subtitles in English; we have a lot of English speakers in our audiences, and we are working on Russian subtitles, too.”
Henig also feels that the subject matter of the Ensemble’s productions, and the way they are presented, make them more accessible to audiences from different cultures. “If you take Yerma, for instance, at face value, it’s like a telenovella. But if you look at works by Shakespeare or Lorca or the Greek tragedies, they also have a soap opera element, and they all have a universal property to them. The texts have psychological and philosophical values that appeal to all people, whatever cultural baggage they bring with them.”
The director has it on good authority that her audiences, of all cultures, do generally get the message, subtle approach notwithstanding. “I don’t try to put together a news broadcast or a TV series on stage. I take an eclectic and multilayered approach to theater. I appeal to the emotional and to the cerebral. I believe the role of the arts is to provoke thought, although not in an overtly provocative way.”
That, for Henig, means flying in the face of accepted Israeli theatrical practice. “In general, Israelis tend to like a neatly structured story, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and it’s normally a happy end. I don’t go for that escapism ethos. I get e-mails after shows, and we sometimes have discussions with the audience after shows. It’s a good opportunity to maintain the discourse after the onstage activity ends.” The audience at the February 2 performance will, indeed, have an opportunity to talk things through with Henig after the play.
The lead role of the childless Yerma is played by Orna Katz, who took over the part after Gili Ben-Ousilio died. “I wrote the part for Gili,” says Henig. “Orna has shown a lot of courage by taking it on. I built the whole production around Gili. After she died, we weren’t sure we wanted to go on with the play, but Orna convinced us to keep it going.”
For Katz, there were all sorts of minefields to be navigated before taking the role fully on board. “Besides the emotional side of Gili’s death and, of course, the fact that the rest of the ensemble was in mourning and had worked with her on the production, I only had three weeks to learn the role. And Ofira [Henig] was away for most of that time. She only came back two days before my first performance of Yerma.”
Katz just kept her head down and went for broke. “I had to be totally professional about it. I think I make Yerma more feminine and soft, even with all the incredible force of the storyline and the madness of the character. I have taken part in about 25 performances of Yerma till now, so I am way past the initial logistics.”
Katz also says she got a lot of support from the rest of the ensemble. “There is a great family atmosphere here, and the production itself is really powerful and amazing. For me, being a part of this team and this production is a gift.”
Henig is equally enamored with the crew. “These are very talented andintelligent actors. I see them as co-creators. When you work withactors you know well and appreciate, you can produce something reallyspecial.”
The Herzliya Ensemble will performYerma on February 2 and 3 at 8:30 p.m. For more information, call (09)955-2921 or go to www.hte.co.il