Shakespeare lives on in the Holy Land

Renowned ADG/TNT theater company brings ‘The Tempest’ to local audiences on the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.

PROSPERO INSTRUCTS Ariel  (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Theatrical productions and events around the world are marking the 1616 death of Shakespeare, and Israelis will be able to participate in the celebration of this anniversary without the need for overseas travel.
The Globe Theatre’s production of Hamlet, which has been touring the world since 2013, is set to be performed in Tel Aviv on March 30, a prelude to the tour’s conclusion in four final performances at London’s Globe theater in London on April 23 – the date of the death of the literary genius often referred to simply as the Bard – and April 24, designated the “anniversary weekend.”
Additionally, for the eighth consecutive year, American Drama Group/TNT Theatre Britain will be back in Israel, this time performing Shakespeare’s last and possibly greatest play, The Tempest, written in 1611.
Part of ADG/TNT’s annual European and Asian tour, this will offer local audiences a chance to catch performances in Zichron Ya’acov (April 3), Ra’anana (April 4), Tel Aviv (April 5), Rehovot (April 6) and Jerusalem (April 7).
“This is Shakespeare’s final look at life, a life he portrayed with greater subtlety and depth than perhaps any other artist,” says TNT Theatre’s artistic director, Sir Paul Stebbings.
“Dealing in illusion is not good enough,” says Stebbings. The main character must “destroy his own power to regain the real world,” which is where forgiveness comes in, and the release of anger through mercy.
Prospero, the hero, is an all powerful “magician-monarch” who, having been betrayed and attacked, is “tempted by violent revenge.” Nevertheless, he needs to “find peace through forgiveness.”
The romantic masterpiece begins with a tempest magically conjured by Prospero, the duke of Milan, who, betrayed by his brother and the king of Naples, and cast upon the waters in an unseaworthy boat, has been swept ashore (with his daughter, Miranda) on an island, deserted except for the airy spirit Ariel and the earthy monster Caliban. As a result of the magic storm, Prospero’s enemies are also shipwrecked and find themselves on the same island. Instead of taking revenge on them, Prospero decides to forgive them, and eventually has his title restored.
WHEN ASKED why they keep bringing their troupe back to perform in Israel despite BDS pressures, both producer Grantly Marshall and director Stebbings say they don’t believe in “politicizing theater.” Or sports, adds Marshall. He uses as example the 1980 United States boycott of the Olympics.
“I was in complete disagreement, and later on when Russia did the same...”
“I have a strong opinion that theater should be done in any culture,” adds Stebbings.
“We perform in many countries, and make it a point never to judge. If we did, we would have to judge our own countries, too.”
He also lauds the efforts of Judy Kleinman towards including all religions and cultures in the audiences she attracts to the performances.
Embellishing this issue, Stebbings points to the relationship between revenge and forgiveness that is at the core of The Tempest.
“It is very clear, although in performances this theme is often overridden. Prospero is in a position to take revenge on his brother – they are enemies on an island – and he decides not to. We have discovered that The Tempest is a huge exploration of the concepts and differences between forgiveness and revenge.
“That is the pleasure of Shakespeare,” says Stebbings. “You can have as many preconceived ideas as you like, but when you go into rehearsals, once you begin to work on it, your preconceptions get discarded.”
“We have worked on editing the play very carefully to bring this out,” he explains.
Editing to avoid simplistic interpretation and reach the core of the master’s works is a hallmark of ADGTNT, who often cut out parts that slow down the action or wrest importance from major issues to reveal the true intentions of the playwright.
Although 18 of the Bard’s plays were published in his lifetime, he appears never to have supervised their editing.
The Tempest was the first play to be included in a large posthumous volume called the First Folio, a collection of most of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623 by two veteran members of his company.
There is only one version of The Tempest in existence, Stebbings explains, unlike the case of Shakespeare’s other plays, and it is perhaps “sloppily written.”
Therefore, the editing is of great importance.
“We keep all the words of the Bard,” says Stebbings, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2013. “But through careful editing,” one of the hallmarks of ADG-TNT, “you illuminate the play and allow the complexities” to come through, “to allow the play to speak.”
Stebbing’s family is from Stratfordupon- Avon. Although he grew up in Nottingham and now lives in Germany, he visits his parents frequently in Shakespeare’s hometown. He speaks of the work being done excavating the foundations of the Bard’s last home.
“He knew he was retiring, going home, so he built a nice house,” he says.
Stebbings finds it “quite extraordinary” how many buildings are related to Shakespeare in the town, such as “his wife’s house, his son-in-law’s house,” and of course, the Stratford Globe theater.
Although “he might have continued to dabble with friends,” Stebbings says about Shakespeare, “The Tempest was the last play he wrote.”
“It is the work of someone who has decided: ‘this is me, signing off.’ We are very lucky that he was still producing at this point. Many people died young or lost inspiration. Shakespeare managed to write something very wise and profound.”
Nevertheless, Stebbings says, one “shouldn’t just think of it as grand, philosophic and poetic,” because it also “contains masterpieces of comedy and drunken humor.”
The magic of Shakespeare lies, he says, in his ability to “reach out to ordinary people.”
IT SO happens, says Marshall, that he is Jewish on his mother’s side. His grandmother was one of the last to leave “Old Russia” on one of the last boats allowed out in 1916, and fled to the US. A few years later, her half-sister wrote to her, telling her it was now safe to return to the motherland, and even sent her a ticket back. She refused, however, since her husband, a chemist, had died that year in Chicago. It was 1922.
In 1989, her son, Marshall’s uncle, went back to the Soviet Union, “to Belarus, which was where the family was from, to find relatives, and discovered they had all been wiped out. Had she gone back...”
The Israeli audience “is one of the most interesting audiences I have had the pleasure to perform to,” says Marshall.
“They are very aware and intelligent. They get the nuances in a more specific way than Europeans. Maybe it is because as a society they have to be more aware of nuances in everything. Maybe it is because of their intelligence.”
“I love performing to audiences who understand,” he says.
Asked if he thought Shakespeare was Jewish because of the nature of the themes dealt with in the play: escaping, boats, hidden identities and so on, he says, “I am not sure.”
However what he does appear to feel sure of is that “at the end he was trying to do something spectacular. Entertaining. Off the wall, even for him. He didn’t have to kowtow to anyone,” at that point in his life.
Asked why he chose this particular play in this significant year for fans of Shakespeare, Marshall says he had been told “by my English actors to do The Tempest, that it was brilliant.
“However, everyone told me it was a hard play to do. I planned to do it in 2012, but then decided to postpone it. The same thing happened in 2014. Finally I said I could not put it off anymore.”
WHEN ASKED where he hails from, Marshall answers Ohio, and adds that he attended Kent State University. “I was an eyewitness to the [1970] shootings there. I was also on the Olympic grounds when the Israeli athletes were massacred in 1972,” he replies, shockingly.
These events, witnessed in his early 20s, taught him “how precious life is.” He learned “not to leave too many stones unturned.”
Defining himself as an “absolutist,” he says he likes to take things to the ultimate level, and then realizes “that you never can!” “You will never run out of things that you can think possible,” Marshall says.
“I have learned that we are the dreams that we are inventing in our own lives. This has been me forever. No matter how bad things become, the next morning you can always shake it off.”
“I am a positivist when it comes to life,” he says. “Formed in the days of Woodstock, in the times of demonstrations against the war in Vietnam.”
Marshall has always had “a link to Judaism in my own way,” he explains, saying that he had known Jewish women at university who caused him to see it as “a hopeful, spiritual, creative, inventive culture, that didn’t have it in its nature to take, but [only] to give.”
Sometimes, though, “I see things happening that are not in tune with this. If we don’t begin to approach a solution to the issues in Israel, it will have a very negative effect.”
Nevertheless, he posits: “Things will get better. There is a basic good within the human spirit which eventually will rise up.”
Marshall won’t be coming with ADGTNT this year, but he hopes to do so in 2017.
“Israel is one of my children, in a small way,” he says. 
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