Seek simplicity, give space

Veteran actor Makram Khoury brings his credo home to the Haifa Theater’s current production of Jacob Gordin’s ‘The Price of Honor.’

The Price of Honor 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Price of Honor 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Haifa Theater’s new production of Jacob Gordin’s The Price of Honor offers the public an opportunity to see one of the Russian- American playwright’s most evocative works. The general storyline will be familiar to anyone of a certain age, or with even the most rudimentary knowledge of Jewish history over the last century or so.
It is based on Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata and runs something like this: Russian Jewish family emigrates to the United States, tries to make a go of it and becomes mired in new and unfamiliar cultural and social minefields.
Mind you, there was plenty of trouble afoot even before the Friedlander family relocated across the pond as the patriarch, Raphael, struggled to handle his daughter’s affair with a Christian, and subsequent extramarital pregnancy, before packing her off to a marriage of convenience in the States and later moving the rest of the family there.
ONE OF the stars of the current production is veteran actor Makram Khoury. Fresh from an invigorating and enlightening 18-month stint with iconic British director Sir Peter Brook which took Khoury all over the world, the 65-year-old, Haifabased Israel Prize recipient brings a fresh eye not only to Gordin’s work, but also to life in this part of the world in general.
“It was an incredible experience to work with Peter – he never calls himself ‘Sir Peter,’” says Khoury. “He trusts his actors and allows them to develop their character, and there is always time and space to do new things.”
Time appears to be in short supply in the Israel world of theater.
“Here we have had two months of rehearsals on the new production, and there is no time for experimentation. You just have to get on with it.”
Even so, any idea that Khoury is reluctant to take part in The Price of Honor could not be further from the truth.
“It is a sort of homecoming for me, to the Haifa Theater,” he notes. “Haifa is my home theater. I think the audience here still loves me, and I love performing here. It is always special to work at this theater.”
Khoury has a long association with the company, even though he never wanted to cast in his lot with it on a permanent basis.
“I spent 22 years at the Haifa Theater before I was offered tenure, after I received the Israel Prize.
I rejected the offer,” he says, “because I wanted to stay footloose and fancy-free. I like my freedom.”
Besides his tried-and-tested acting skills, Khoury is something of a shoo-in for his role in The Price of Honor, considering his personal history. He was born to a Christian family, in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The family fled to Lebanon during the 1948 war, but after five months of unemployment, Khoury’s lawyer father decided to risk returning rather than live in a refugee camp. The family found housing in Acre.
After graduating from high school in 1963, Khoury went on to study at the Hebrew University, but soon dropped out to act. He trained with Jacqueline Kronberg, an American teacher who had worked with the US-based Second City improvisational comedy theater company, and also got involved with an Arab theater in Haifa. Eventually he went to drama school in England.
Khoury says that his role in Brook’s globetrotting 11 and 12 production neatly closed several circles for him.
“When I was training to become an actor, I read Peter’s book Open Space, and his productions, so to actually work with him was like a dream come true. And I used to read [Guardian newspaper theater critic] Michael Billington’s reviews, and when 11 and 12 ran for a month at the Barbican [London theater], he wrote about me. That was a great thrill.”
MORE THAN anything, Khoury says that he learned from the simplicity of 85-year-old Brook’s approach to the art form, and to life in general.
“Peter taught us that it’s all much of a muchness, that all the grandiose productions he did with the Royal Shakespeare Company don’t add up to much. Eventually you have to aim for simplicity and purity, both inner and outer.”
Khoury said he did not have to undergo any serious epiphanies to follow the Brook approach.
“That’s very much my credo too,” he explains, “but it confirmed what I believe in and encouraged me to stick to my path. I think he chose me for 11 and 12 because of that.”
The fact that he has the lead role in a play originally written in Yiddish by a Jewish Russian- American playwright and performed in Hebrew does not faze Khoury in the slightest.
“I speak and perform in three languages – Arabic, Hebrew and English. I performed in West Wing and I have also had parts in a French movie and an Italian production.
“Of course I spoke with an accent, but I don’t think it matters that much what language you work in.”
For Khoury, the wider social and cultural milieu is just as important as what goes on inside the four walls of the theater. Just like Friedlander and the other characters in The Price of Honor, Khoury needs to feel at home.
“As an Israeli, Arab Palestinian I would like to have the sense of belonging to a nation,” he declares. “Despite the love and admiration I get from Israelis and Arabs, we are still not a nation, and I cannot say I am completely Israeli or Palestinian. I travel the world as an Israeli, but there are lots of areas which still need to be addressed.”
One of those connects neatly with the Brook idea of each actor having an open space around him in which to work. Khoury would like to see the people of the Middle East adapt that ethos to everyday life.
“Israel is still not part of the West. We have a Middle Eastern mentality, and we live on cynicism.
There is an unhealthy competitiveness here.
“When I was away, I missed Israel a lot, but there are some basic elements of living together which we don’t enjoy here. We can all learn from each other. Instead we have no consideration, and we all know better than anyone else.
“Behavioral codes like ‘If I am for myself only, what am I?’ [from the Ethics of the Fathers] – that’s a way of life, [but] we’re each out for our own good.“ Still, it is not all doom and gloom for Khoury. As he said, he is delighted to come home to the Haifa Theater, and to bring the lessons he learned from his time with Brook to his own backyard.
“I just directed a production of The Little Prince for the El Midan Arabic-language theater here, during rehearsals for the Gordin play. I brought all the exercises I had learned with me, and used them with the four actors in The Little Prince. I was happy to see I can still use the techniques I’ve learned throughout my life, and from Peter too.
“Peter said I needed to help others, and I am happy to do that.”
Another important lesson Khoury learned from Brook was to stay out of the limelight.
“There are no stars in Peter’s shows. At the end of the performances, we didn’t have a hierarchy of the order in which the actors take a bow. In fact, there was no bowing at all. We just all stood in a row, holding hands, and it didn’t matter where you stood in the row.
“We need to get back to the simple basics and attach importance to the right things, with as little ego as possible.”