It takes two to tango in Jerusalem

Playwright Rowe aims to to present a nuanced production about the period of the British Palestinian mandate.

Jerusalem Tango 521 (photo credit: Matt Tullet)
Jerusalem Tango 521
(photo credit: Matt Tullet)
Pat Rowe has done more than just research the background to her new play, she has gained firsthand experience of much of the religious and cultural sentiment involved. Former broadcast and print journalist Rowe’s current work is called Jerusalem Tango and is based on events surrounding the 1946 bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel by the Irgun, in which over 90 people lost their lives. The play opened this week at the Carriageworks venue in Leeds, northern England, where it will run until May 26, before it heads south for a couple of performances at the London Arts Depot on May 30 and 31.
There are also a couple of practical Israeli connections, as one of the London performances will be a fund-raiser for Youth Aliya, and the music for Jerusalem Tango was composed by London-resident Israeli sound man and musician Yaniv Fridel.
Rowe’s previous credits include the acclaimed New End Theatre production of Toad, which was subsequently made into a BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Play with Oscar nominee Imelda Staunton in the title role, and Forbidden, which was performed at the Edinburgh Festival and subsequently in Cleveland, Ohio. Rowe recently published her first short story, which is set in contemporary Jerusalem.
Rowe’s interest in Israel, and in the subject matter of the play, is far more than a matter of academic curiosity. She is in fact Jewish, and has spent quite a lot of time in this part of the world over the past four-plus decades.
“I lived in Israel from the late Sixties to early Seventies,” says the playwright. “I worked at Kol Yisrael [Voice of Israel radio], as a reporter in the English department, but that was a long time ago.”
She also gained some stage experience while she was here, before eventually taking up her current line of work.
“I acted at the Khan Theater [in Jerusalem], and then I worked in radio when I came back to Britain and, when I had a mid-life crisis, I started writing fiction... that, I suppose, eventually led to this.”
The plot of Jerusalem Tango is based on one of the most momentous events of the period of British rule here, from 1917 to 1948. Some say the bombing actually hastened the somewhat ignominious departure of the British forces just before the new State of Israel was declared by David Ben-Gurion. Rowe started investigating the history of the British Mandate in pre-state Palestine just out of interest.
“Despite my background – being British and Jewish, and having lived in Israel – I was very ignorant about the British Mandate, and I started reading up on it,” she explains. “I got more and more fascinated, and then I was looking for a focus for a story, and came across a rather obvious event, of the King David bombing. I thought it was such an important event in the whole era because, in a way, it was such a turning point.”
Rowe quickly became increasingly enchanted by the event, and by some of the subtexts she discovered in the process.
“The characters of my play are actually inspired by actual characters who I read about in various books and letters and diaries,” she explains.
Like many a good drama, there is some significant romantic content to the saga.
“There are five characters in the play, but the central love affair between the young British officer and the local girl, Ziva, was sparked off by something I read about very superficially – about a British officer called Thomas Wilson and Shoshana Borochov, who apparently had a great love affair. I didn’t really learn much more about that, but it sort of sparked off the idea.”
The play opens with a scene at the hotel, which serves both as the seat of the Mandate Secretariat and provides the British officials, who are naturally used to a more temperate climate and a somewhat more orderly lifestyle, with refuge from the heat and mayhem of the Levant. There, at the King David, the British and the locals mingle for work, pleasure and intrigue.
The audience soon becomes aware of the romantic component of the play, although it becomes apparent that there is a lethal twist to the love interest. In the hotel bar, Ziva, a young Jewish woman, is dancing the tango with Thomas, a British officer who is lonely and far from home. Ziva loves to tango and she goes to the King David Hotel for that purpose – or so she says.
We are also introduced to a couple of senior Mandate officials, Secretariat member Sir Henry Gordon, who is exasperated by the fact that his office has broken down, and Arthur Kirby, general manager of Palestine Railways, who is constantly frustrated by the sabotage which stops his trains running.
While Ziva’s interest in Wilkins was initially spawned by her part in facilitating the Irgun’s bombing plot, she gradually develops strong feelings for the young British officer, which are duly reciprocated. The arousal of the couple’s emotions leads each of the partners to rethink their political stance, and their loyalties become far less clear cut. The fifth character in the play is Avram, Ziva’s father, who also has his perplexing issues to deal with.
The cast of the production includes Jenny Leveton (Ziva), Joel Parry (Wilson), Michael Forrest (Kirby), Jem Dobbs (Avram) and Peter Alexander as Sir Henry Gordon. Leveton is the only Jewish member of the cast. The production is directed by Olivia Rowe, who is not related to the writer.
Rowe’s interest in the King David incident was also piqued by One Palestine Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate, written by Tom Segev and published in 2001. The Segev book looks into the lives of different people who lived through those tumultuous times, and the author proffers the idea that the British contributed significantly to the ensuing conflict between the Jews and Arabs of the region by adopting a pro-Zionist stance.
Like Segev, Rowe approaches the historical events through the prism of everyday human interaction.
“The idea [for the play] came about through the people, and the idea of coming to terms with each other’s position and realizing how much more complex the situation actually was than they had originally thought,” she notes.
She also says her research opened her eyes to a general British political malaise, which she believes is just as relevant today as it was in the first half of the 20th century. “I got the impression that the Brits came in [to the Middle East] with a great feeling of moral superiority, and a kind of ‘we’ll sort this out’ attitude.”
She says that it soon became apparent that the colonial power had taken on more than it had bargained for. “When it became more difficult, in the period of the play, they found it completely impossible to deal with, or to resolve.”
She says that much of that holier-thanthou viewpoint remains in place today. “The British press are very quick to judge about whatever happens in Israel, or the territories, or anywhere. It is quite interesting how, when confronted by these dilemmas [during the Mandate era], the British found them totally perplexing and couldn’t grasp the actual reality, because it was more complicated than they had realized. I think that applies just as much today too.”
Gordon’s character was based on a highranking British official called Sir Henry Gurney, who was chief secretary to the Palestine Mandate Government from 1946 to 1948. His observations on events at the time provided Rowe with valuable insight into the way the British viewed their role in the Middle East.
“He published wonderful diaries and he was a typical colonial administrator,” notes Rowe. “He was totally unflappable and took a sort of ‘doing my best’ sort of attitude. He was very much a toff [aristocrat who exudes an air of superiority], a public [private] school-educated administrator.”
Kirby’s persona is also taken from a real-life character.
“He was the general manager of the railways [in Mandate Palestine] and he was on the front line because his tracks kept being blown up,” Rowe continues, adding that Kirby was a complementary, socially inferior, sidekick to the chief secretary.
“He was a grammar-school-educated lower-class individual who found the whole thing totally baffling, and was very quick to blame ‘those bloody Jews,’ while Gordon tries to rise above that. Between them they represent different aspects of the British administration.”
The political-cultural-social mix of the storyline is further enhanced by the introduction of some parental concerns, in the character of Ziva’s father Avram.
“He is a kibbutznik of Russian origin who is unaware of what his daughter is getting up to and takes a more moderate line, a sort of Ben-Gurion position of working together with the British and so on.”
Rowe says that some of the cast members had to go through a steep learning curve for their roles.
“The actor who plays Avram [Jem Dobbs] is wonderful, and he is not Jewish... before the rehearsals started, he didn’t know what a kibbutz was, but he’s so right for the part. It’s really interesting.”
The playwright was more interested in going for actors with consummate professional skills rather than appropriate life experience.
“Jem auditioned for the part and he won out over someone who was a far more obvious choice, a Jewish actor.”
Considering Rowe’s Jewish origins, and her intimate knowledge of life here, it probably made the storyline and material more accessible. On the other hand, it may have made maintaining a professional, objective, stance more difficult – if that was a prerequisite condition of the project.
“I try not to work from a point of view. I don’t have any agenda as such,” says the writer. “Someone who read an earlier version of the play thought it was quite a nuanced approach to Israeli history, in other words it didn’t tend to this side or that side. I thought that was a great compliment, and I hope the piece does show some of the complexity of the situation back then. It is not a political play, and I am not a politician or a historian. I hope one can see the situation [through the play] without feeling that one is being fed a line.”
In fact, rather than having a “compromised” approach to the project, with the baggage of her personal experiences in this part of the world, Rowe feels that working on the play actually opened her eyes to a part of British history of which she was not previously consciously aware.
“Maybe this is more about my ignorance. I was surprised when I learned about what the Brits did there, and what they contributed – you know, the railways and the legal system, and other things. But then I thought, of course I knew all that, somewhere deep down, but I hadn’t given it much thought.”
Rowe is hopeful that Jerusalem Tango might also provide Israeli memory banks with a small jolt about some of the realities of the Mandate era which may not get too much attention in this part of the world.
“Do you think the average Israeli, or younger Israeli, is aware of the British contribution in that period?” she muses. “When I discussed the play with a younger Israeli I know he was just discovering some of the details of that time, and he’s in his late twenties. I have a feeling that that information is sort of brushed under the carpet, for whatever reason. It was not a glorious period in British colonial history.”
While Rowe may believe that Jerusalem Tango is not a political work, she is also aware that there is almost nothing apolitical in the Middle East. With that in mind she ran various versions of the script by people who were in a position to judge whether tweaking was required in order to accommodate certain political sensitivities.
“A friend of mine who lives in Tel Aviv read an earlier draft and he said he thought the Jews came out rather badly,” she laughs. “I went through it and took out a few comments here and there. I was certainly aware of that danger and I definitely did not want to slag off my own people. I am sure that some people will find something to object to. That’s the nature of the play, isn’t it? I am not sure how I will cope with it, if that happens.”
Then again, she believes she did a decent job in sourcing accurate information before she got down to the writing.
“The fact that I based the play on are quite well proven. For example, there is this whole thing about whether there were warnings [before the bombing]. It is pretty well established now that there were warnings. My drama includes that part about the warning, so I don’t think anyone can come along and dispute that.”
Rowe is, of course, delighted with the Leeds run, and the shows in London, but is particularly open to the idea of bringing the production over here, where the story takes place.
“I would love to do that,” she says. “It would be a dream.”