Shakespeare in the desert

Romeo and Juliet to be performed by an international company that takes the Bard’s words to ‘the four corners of the earth.’

‘Shakespeare never had slow or complex set changes between scenes, the plays should be fast and furious,’ says Director Paul Stebbings. (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Shakespeare never had slow or complex set changes between scenes, the plays should be fast and furious,’ says Director Paul Stebbings.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The explosive, multi-award-winning theatrical combo of TNT-Britain and the ADG-Europe is set to steal several shows across the country with a staging of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet this month. The group will “why” and “wherefore” for native and non-native English-speaking Israeli audiences on its sixth tour to the area in as many years.
Director Paul Stebbings, who founded The New Theater in 1980, defines the TNT-American Drama Group-Europe’s version of Shakespeare as a mixture of “Elizabethan, later Baroque and contemporary music, masks and costumes,” by means of which the company explores “the dense imagery of the original.”
ADGE and TNT were established within two years of each other, the former at the University of Munich in 1978. “We developed alone for the first years until we collided in 1993,” says its founder Grantly Marshall; they were introduced by a mutual friend.
Just as Shakespeare’s Verona “is not a Verona that any traveler would recognize,” says Stebbings, “but a gorgeous chaotic symbol of a world in one,” so, TNT’s Italy, “is the densest Italy we can conjure – the Italy of Casanova, Don Juan, Caravaggio, Bernini and Harlequino – but also an Italy perceived through the English imagination.”
For Stebbings, Shakespeare’s plays are “the richest theatrical texts we have been privileged to work upon.” His troupe of multi-skilled actors is small, they double roles “and even swap genders as needed,” using live music by in-house composer and musical director John Kenny, and a minimal set.
“We have to be able to perform without theater lighting [because after Israel and their tour of Asia and Central America, they plan to play in several important castle courtyards in Europe with only the stars and moonlight].
“We have to appeal to a wide audience and our greatest weapon is the imagination of that audience. The resources of a large modern theater often impede these plays. For example Shakespeare never had slow or complex set changes between scenes, the plays should be fast and furious – how else can they fit ‘within the two hours traffic of our stage’ to quote ‘Romeo and Juliet.’” TNT approaches Shakespeare’s text “in the spirit of the original,” editing standardized versions of the text which Stebbings and other experts believe the Bard “might have adapted and cut” himself in order to produce a show in a suitable time frame.
Marshall explains that ADGE started as theater troupe and “now is more of a producer.” He is currently involved in the production of six plays. “I have an insane theory that I like to make everything possible,” he says, explaining that “you can perform everywhere with English theater.” His motto is “never say no and always accept [theatrical] engagements if you can make it happen.
Never say no – within reason – and try and make everything possible happen.”
BEERSHEBA IS slated as the newest addition to the roster of venues where Juliet will ask Romeo to renounce his name, following the inclusion of Rehovot in 2013, and of Zichron Ya’akov in 2012, to the original list of Tel Aviv, Ra’anana and Jerusalem from February 23 to March 1. This production of Shakespeare’s evergreen romance stars a white Juliet, played by Georgie Ashworth, opposite a black Romeo, Natey Jones. Such a combination of cultures, says Marshall, “leads to a contrast in sexuality that creates a very interesting connection between the main characters.” It is particularly relevant for Israel, he says, “where you have so many cultures.”
The introduction of a bi-racial couple is one of the strategies utilized to attract audiences to the Bard’s words, he says.
“In the structure of a play we do what we can to attract people.
When you are attracted to something, you focus more attention and that makes it more accessible.”
Accessible is the keyword, as evidenced by Zichron Ya’akov resident and ADG-Israel producer, Judy Kleinman’s rave reviews to The Jerusalem Post. Kleinman, who became involved with the group in 2011, says much of its returning audience consists of non-native English-speaking families.
“What is extraordinary is how they make Shakespeare accessible to a modern audience,” she says, a testimony that the group is successful at achieving its stated aim.
Kleinman had studied Shakespeare’s works as part of her high-school curriculum, but never felt much of a connection to his words. “It wasn’t until I saw [the ADGE production of ‘A Midsummer night’s dream’] that I fell in love with Shakepeare,” she says. “They prove that Shakespeare was meant to be seen, not just read.” After the play, Kleinman contacted Marshall, who, as producer, had put a notice in the program asking for help to continuing booking shows.
“They were going to perform in Ra’anana,” she recounts. “I wanted to bring a group of families from Zichron Ya’akov so I got in touch; they said they had a free night and that they would come to us.”
Last year Rehovot was added to the tour, and this year they will also be playing in Beersheba.
“This is a traveling group,” she says. “No elaborate settings, they are truly extraordinary.
The children are transfixed.” Indeed, matinée tickets for February 23 are already sold out and only about 50 tickets are left for the evening performance. Among those attending the two Zichron Ya’akov performances are close to 100 students, parents and teachers.
This is their third year with “Will” says Kleinman, because “these actors can so engage the audience that the students really get turned on to Shakespeare, and they are astounded that they’ve understood a play in Shakespearean English.”
AMY FIELDS is one of the key teachers of so-called “native” English speakers – an appellation that covers a wide spectrum of abilities. This is the third year that she will take students to an TNTADGE performance.
Fields spends a month preparing her students to see the play. “This year, together with another teacher, Iris Karev, we did a dramatic reading of the play’s synopsis.” They selected 20 key lines from ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and when they snapped their fingers the students had to break in with their lines. Then they picked the six most important scenes to read in class and to analyze the language. Additionally, they screened both the 1968 Franco Zefirelli and the 1997 Leonardo DiCaprio movies.
“I am totally inspired by this company,” says Fields. “I am so grateful that they come. We didn’t make attendance obligatory, and there is an expense attached, but all the students were anxious to go and all have signed up, except one who had a previous engagement.”
Melissa Bitton, is the English coordinator at ORT Greenberg Tivon, and her students are not native English speakers, but belong to the advanced classes.
“We take 30 kids from seventh to 12th grade, whose English is good. This year we are not doing any advance preparation because the play is ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ but last year we did prepare them for ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’” Bitton praises the troupe’s way of acting and speaking. “They are very funny, they speak slowly and nicely, and the kids can follow. Their performances are full of exaggerations and they do funny, cute stuff. They move around a lot, do little dances, and a few actors cover all the characters.
They articulate well enough for the students to understand, although of course, for some it is easier than for others to understand Shakesperian language.”
As an English teacher, she says, you ask yourself what can be done to make the language come alive, “and this is such a great opportunity, to give them the chance to experience Shakespeare, to feel they understand it. Combined with the whole trip there and back, the talk about the play on the way, the excitement, the anticipation. It is a most successful experience.”
For more information see or contact Judy Kleinman at or 054-646-1688.