The many faces of Hizkiya

Playing Lear at Tel Aviv University, veteran stage actor Yitzhak Hizkiya adds yet another dimension to his on stage persona.

Vilified, abused, abandoned and literally maddened by grief, Lear comes upon the newly blinded Gloucester on the chalky downs above Dover. They speak, Lear disjointedly, Gloucester in agony. "If there are lucid moments for Lear, it's in these scenes," says Yitzhak (Hizky) Hizkiya, who plays the title role in Yossi Yizraeli's production of Shakespeare's King Lear. The tragedy will have its gala opening tomorrow, December 25, at Tel Aviv University. "The more crazy Lear gets, the more he understands what it means to be human," explains Hizkiya. "He loses the control he exercised as a ruler, but it's the loss of that control that allows him to access humanity." Hizkiya is on loan to Tel Aviv University from the Cameri Theater where he's been a company member since 1968. He was offered Lear when Orna Porat stepped down, "and when I got the part, I said to myself: 'Hizky, learn the text, learn it by heart and then listen to the words. Shakespeare wrote everything into the words, all you have to do is listen.'" Who is Lear then? He hesitates and says, "For me he's that same little, shriveled old man I see sitting in the Rehov Dubnov Garden with his Filipina maid, not tall like me. I don't know why I think of him like that, yet Lear is an old man; he describes himself as an old man, often 'a foolish, fond old man.'" He hesitates again, and adds, "At Hanoch Levin's funeral I saw a tombstone on which was written 'Children have I reared and brought up and they have rebelled against me,' and I thought then of the frustration and sorrow that man must have felt to request such an epitaph. Lear is in that situation. "He divides the kingdom among his daughters because he knows their characters, because he wants to prevent conflict when he's gone, but he doesn't imagine they'll turn on him the way they do. And there is something foolish in the way he does it. Who asks their kids: 'Who loves me best?' Yet how well Shakespeare understood human nature, because every parent does secretly want to know how much his children love him." Shakespeare's Lear is an old man, but a truly old actor hasn't got the physical stamina to play him. The great Laurence Olivier once wrote that he prepared for the role striding up and down moorland hills roaring the text. Hizkiya repeats the lines riding to rehearsal on his bicycle, and approaches the role "completely realistically. I let the situation work on me." No little old man, the 56-year-old actor is indeed tall, and whippet thin. He concedes that these days he's more confident than he used to be, yet he has a diffident air, as though inquiring politely and perhaps a little anxiously, "Who? Me?" Hizkiya's changeable hazel eyes look kindly in his long, deeply lined face that admirably lends itself to comedy, and he has made his considerable mark chiefly as a comic actor - especially as a Levin comic actor. He was perfect for the late Hanoch Levin's succession of gawky, gormless losers and worked with him from 1970 until the playwright/director's death in 1999, appearing in every play from Vardale's Youth to Requiem. Like all Levin's actors, Hizkiya venerates him, saying that "once a year, no matter what, I knew I'd be working with Levin, and that would reassure me." This is the third time Hizkiya has worked with Yizraeli, and he credits the internationally respected director with his transformation from juvenile lead - which he disliked - to character actor. Yizraeli had tapped him for Bassanio in his The Merchant of Venice and Hizkiya had demurred. "I know," said Yizraeli excitedly at the time, "you'll play the unsuccessful suitors too," and so it was. Born in Bulgaria, Hizkiya was seven when he arrived with his parents in 1948. As a child he'd recite lines for his mother before bedtime, but a career in theater was not, he says, a conscious decision; it sort of happened after the late Peter Fry cast him as Oswald in Ibsen's Ghosts during his second year at Tel Aviv University. He played the part for 18 months. Habima grabbed him first when he graduated with a double major - "that was the rule for a humanities degree in those days" - in theater and history. Nor has he lacked prizes. In 2003, for instance, he received both the Klatchkin Prize for Life Achievement, and the Israel Theater Best Actor Prize for The Dresser. He also got the ITP nod for Krum and Democracy in which he played the spy Gunther Guillaume, a straight drama role. Offstage, he paints (there's an exhibition of his work in the Cameri foyer), plays the drums and is married to Karin, a theater researcher at the Open University. One son studies mathematics at San Francisco State, the other teaches film in local high schools. Onstage at the Cameri, Hizkiya plays Polonius in Hamlet and the madly jealous husband in the farce A Flea in Her Ear. Lear, he says, "is the most tragic of roles, and yet I look for the humor, because it's there and because it heightens the tragedy."