Shai Bar Yaacov*
2017 was a significant year for the Israeli theatre because it marks the centenary of the founding of the first professional Hebrew speaking theatre, Habima, which was officially founded in Moscow, in 1917, sometime between the first liberal Russian revolution (in February) and the second Bolshevik one (in November). At the time, the idea of a Hebrew-speaking professional theatre was considered revolutionary. The founders of Habima saw their new project as part of the Zionist awakening; they dreamed of building a theatre in Jerusalem which would be a kind of “new secular temple,” where the newborn Jewish nation, building its homeland in the ancient land of Israel, could come together and celebrate its historic past.
A visitor to Israel in 2017 will be amazed by the success of the artistic project launched by the starry-eyed idealists in Moscow one hundred years ago, even if the center of the Israeli theatre scene is in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. Habima, which is now officially the Israeli National Theatre, and all the other theatres founded in the years since, are thriving, and have created a vibrant theatre culture which caters to a very appreciative audience. In an average year, fifty-five different companies produce over two hundred new shows, and the number of performances is steadily rising.
In fact, the audience attendance records of the Israeli theatre are quite astounding. In 2016, the Israeli theatres sold more than 5.25 million tickets to performances throughout the country, almost all of them to Hebrew-speaking audiences (there are small theatres that work in other languages, such as Arabic, Yiddish and Russian). The three biggest theatres, Habima, the Cameri and the Beit Lessin Theatre, each run over one thousand performances a year. We should remember that Israel has a population of just eight million people, out of which about twenty percent are Arabic speakers and another ten to fifteen percent are ultra-orthodox Jews who never go to the theatre. Clearly, the Israeli Hebrew speaking theatre is an enormous success story.
But this popular success does not mean that all is good in our theatre world. Most of the repertory theatres have, in recent years, been struggling with crippling debts. Public funding for the theatre, which has always been small by European standards, has been put under increasing political pressure from a right-wing government which sees the theatre (and all other art forms) as a kind of left-wing conspiracy taken over by radical elements. The culture minister since 2015, Ms. Miri Regev, has created various scandals with her attempts to block funding for theatres which she considers subversive. The most prominent effect of her policies was the resignation, in June 2017, of the artistic director of the Acre Fringe Theatre Festival, Avi Gibson-Barel, after the steering committee of the festival (on which sit representatives of the Acre municipality, which is headed by a right-wing Likud mayor, the same party that Ms. Regev represents) refused to accept the inclusion of a show which was meant to be based on letters from Arab prisoners and held in Israeli security prisons.
After Gibson-Barel’s resignation, all the other shows planned for the festival also withdrew, and the various artists’ unions called for a boycott of the festival, which has traditionally been the focal-point of the year for the non-mainstream theatre in Israel. Other theatres which have come under the threat of funding cuts in the last two years are the Al-Midan Theatre, in Haifa, (a small Arabic speaking theatre) and the Jaffa Theatre (a fringe theatre which produces shows both in Hebrew and Arabic and is well known for its traditional support for co-operative projects that combine Jewish and Arab theatre artists). Yet, despite Ms. Regev’s provocative efforts, and the media backlash she has engendered, to date, her influence on the actual theatre world in Israel has been minimal.
What has been more marked in recent years has been a gradual shift of generations; some of the best-known theatre managers have been replaced by representatives of a younger generation. Among those who have left are Ilan Ronen, the artistic director of Habima, and Noam Semel, the general director of the Cameri Theatre, the largest theatre in the country. Also, Omri Nitzan, who worked with Semel as artistic director of the Cameri for the past twenty-five years, is due to leave in the coming year or two. All three men are representatives of a generation that came into its own in the 1970s, a volatile period in Israeli history, following the crisis of the Yom Kippur War, and have dominated the Israeli theatre scene since.
Ronen’s farewell production as artistic director at Habima was a fine adaptation of Hans Fallada’s book, Alone in Berlin; Nitzan’s latest production for the Cameri was based on another novel from the same period in German history, Klaus Mann’s Mephisto. Both productions were well received but could be read as surreptitious cautionary-tales for the Israeli political and cultural scene, which has found itself moving in nationalistic, and even proto-fascistic, directions that could be seen as parallel to processes found in German society in the 1930s. In Mephisto, this parallel was made fairly clear, whereas, in Ronen’s production at Habima, it remained more oblique.
Trailer of Mephisto, based on a novel by Klaus Mann, adapted to the stage by Hillel Mittelpunkt, directed by Omri Nitzan, Cameri Theatre
Aside from these historic dramas, with their political undertones, much of the creative energy at the three main theatres in Tel Aviv is aimed at putting on light family comedies or social melodramas, which distance themselves from any political issues. The musical-theatre scene has been enjoying a renaissance in Israel, in the last few years, with successful revivals of imported hits, such as West Side Story (Cameri Theatre, 2015), Evita (Habima, 2015), Hair (Cameri, 2016), Funny Girl (Cameri, 2016) and Les Miserables (Habima, 2016), as well as independent productions of Billy Elliot (2016) and Hairspray (2017).
One original Israeli musical which has joined the trend and gained great success is Billy Schwartz, written by Ohad Hitman and Shiri-lee Deshe. It premiered in a workshop version at the Bat Yam Festival, in 2013, and was given a full-scale production at the Haifa Municipal Theatre, in 2015. The most talented director working in this field is Moshe Kepten, the incoming artistic director of Habima. The shift from Ronen, a director whose name is connected to serious, political and confrontational theatre, to Kepten, who made his name in creating slick, dynamic, well-crafted musical theatre productions, indicates the general direction in which Israeli theatre is developing—a direction which is not very encouraging to critics who would prefer to see more serious, engaged and experimental drama.
Trailer of Billy Schwartz, by Ohad Hittman and Shiri-lee Deshe, music by Ohad Hittman, directed by Daniel Efrat, Haifa Municip al Theatre
The most famous playwright of the generation of the 1970s was the late Hanoch Levin, whose subversive, darkly comic and poetic works became central to the repertory of the Cameri Theatre until his death, in 1999. Almost twenty years later, the theatre in Israel has found it difficult to name an heir to his throne, and many of his plays continue to be revived. The Cameri has initiated an international festival of productions of his plays from around the world; a sign of his growing international reputation.
If there was one playwright in Israel who seemed destined to pick up the mantle of Levin, it was Gilad Evron, a young writer who came to prominence in the 1990s with a series of political-historical dramas, built as complex dark parables of power, performance and personal delusions. His 2011 play, Ulysses on Bottles, staged at the Haifa Municipal Theatre, was one of the few attempts to grapple artistically with the difficult issue of the relationship between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Unfortunately, his career ended prematurely with his untimely death in late 2015. Two of his best early plays, Yehu (a biblical drama based on characters taken from the book of Kings, but set in a totally modern context) and A Mountain Does Not Move (loosely based on Akira Kurosawa’s film, Kagamusha), were recently revived in excellent productions at the Habima and Beit Lessin theatres respectively, and proved once more how complex, thought-provoking and original his writing was.
A Mountain Does Not Move was dynamically directed by Irad Rubinstein, member of a group of talented younger directors who have, in recent years, become prominent in the Israeli theatre. Another gifted young director, Shir Goldberg, has recently been named as director in residence at the Khan Theatre, a small repertory theatre in Jerusalem, where she has created several delicate, poetic adaptations of literary works. Her finest piece of work in recent years was an adaptation of several short-stories by Nabokov (created with the help of her habitual creative partner, the dramaturg Shahar Pinkas), entitled Nowadays No-one Fights in Duels, which was beautifully staged and powerfully acted by a fine ensemble of actors at the Beer Sheva Theatre, in 2017.
Shai Pitovsky, another talented young director who headed the Habima young actors’ troupe until 2015, has recently left the center of the country to set up his own theatre in Eilat, a town situated at the southern-most tip of Israel on the Red Sea. There he staged, last year, an exciting, outdoor, site-specific version of Lorca’s Yerma, entitled Yerma by Moonlight. Other young directors worth noting are Udi Ben-Moshe, Gilad Kimchi and Yehezkel Lazarov. Itai Tiran, the star actor of the generation of the new millennium, whose stellar performance as Hamlet a decade ago, in a production directed by Nitzan at the Cameri Theatre, was hailed as a revelation (not only in Israel), has recently been involved as a director and a dramaturg in several interesting productions there. Many see him as slated to replace Nitzan as the artistic director of the Cameri Theatre when he retires next year.
The most exciting younger writer working in the Israeli theatre today is to be found at the Gesher Theatre, in Jaffa. Gesher was founded more than two decades ago by Evgeni Arie, a well-known Russian director who emigrated from Russia to Israel in 1991 and brought with him a troupe of talented actors and a style of theatricality in the tradition of Meyerhold. Roey Hen is the Israeli-born dramatist who has worked under Arie for many years and has gradually developed from a translator into a dramaturg and, finally, into a playwright in his own right. His plays have an exciting and vibrant quality which comes from his deep connection to the classics and to the ironic avant-garde Russian tradition, as well as to an Israeli popular style of comedy. Among his recent successes have been a new version of The Dybbuk (2014, dir. Arie); Alice (2015, dir. Lazarov, a weird and wonderful fantasy journey into the mind of Lewis Carrol and the story of the girl he befriended); I am Don Quixote (2015, dir. Arie, a modern adaptation of Cervantes’ tale set in a prison cell); The Book of King David (2016, dir. Arie) and In the Tunnel (2017, dir. Rubinstein). The last show was a brilliant political satire, loosely based on the Bosnian film No Man’s Land, which presented a story of two Israeli soldiers and a Hamas terrorist, who get trapped in a tunnel under the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, while, above ground, the political and media worlds on both sides go into overdrive.
All five productions were not just intelligently written and wonderfully acted, but also enjoyed the sense of visual and aural magic that has defined Gesher’s special style of theatre for the past twenty-five years. The sense of fantastic realism which Gesher has developed connected beautifully to the parodic, mythic/absurd quality which Hen’s sensitive writing has tapped into with great poetic force. In the Tunnel had the added attribute of being the most politically relevant show that Gesher has staged, and, in fact, the most refreshingly subversive comedy that the Israeli theatre has managed to produce in years.
Trailer of In the Tunnel, by Roey Hen, directed by Irad Rubinstein, Gesher Theatre
Another writer, whose works have recently come to dominate the Israeli stage, even though he himself does not write for the theatre, is David Grossman. Three adaptations of his novels have been among the most interesting, powerful and thought-provoking shows seen on the Israeli stage in recent years. Falling Out of Time, staged at the Gesher Theatre, in 2015, was a daring experimental work created by Yehezkel Lazarov, which took the audience on a physical and mental journey through various spaces and styles of performance, in an attempt to touch the heart of the tragedy of a bereaved father.
To the End of the Land, created in a co-production of the Habima and Cameri theatres by the veteran director Hanan Snir, was another successful attempt to translate Grossman’s prophetic prose into the theatrical medium. The story deals with the journey through the land of Israel by a woman who tries to flee the impending news of her only son’s death in a war. It was given a beautifully condensed theatrical interpretation in a production that combined a stage-within-a-stage presentation and built itself up to a powerful emotional crescendo. Efrat Ben-Tzur, in the lead role, rightfully won the prize of the Best Actress award (2016) at the annual Israel Theatre Prize ceremony for her harrowing performance in this production. The play also won the prizes for the Best Original Play of the year and the Best Director.
Grossman’s latest novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar, which recently won the prestigious International Mann-Booker Prize for literature, was staged a few months ago at the Cameri Theatre, in a production directed by and starring Dror Keren, whose scintillating performance as Dovale G., the stand-up comedian who puts his life on show and bares his soul in front of an unsuspecting audience, created an emotional roller-coaster, moving the audience between laughter and tears. To my mind, the show was the undoubted pinnacle of the last season in the Israeli theatre.
Trailer of To The End Of The Land, based on a novel by David Grossman, adapted and directed by Hanan Snir, Habima and Cameri Theatres
All three plays managed to powerfully transfer Grossman’s deep and complex characters to the stage. These plays create beautiful, painfully tragic vistas that mirror the complex struggles felt by many Israelis trapped today between their personal dreams of freedom and the demands of the historical necessities, in the harsh and often brutal Israeli landscape.
As if against the run-of-the-mill productions of musicals, family melodramas and light comedies, which inhabit most of the stages in Israel these days, these shows proved that the theatre in Israel is still capable of fulfilling its historic mission, set out one hundred years ago in Moscow, of being a place where the community can come together and feel the pulse of its Jewish heart—even if that heart is being “cleft in twain” by the images that confront it, as Hamlet‘s Queen Gertrude would have defined it.
 See Emanuel Halevy, Habima – Israel’s National Theatre 1917-1979, Tel Aviv: Akad, 1981, 37-43. For further discussion of the strange history of the founding of Habima and the relationship between Zionist aspirations and artistic avant-garde dreams, see Gad Kaynar, “National Theatre as Colonized Theatre: The Paradox of Habima,” Theatre Journal 50.1 (March 1998): 1-20.
 These statistics come from the annual reports of the Pilat Centre for Research and Analysis on Culture, which publishes an annual report on “The Public Theatres in Israel,” commissioned by the Israeli Ministry of Culture. The last full report for the year 2015 came out in October, 2016. The statistical information for 2016 has also been published on their site www.pilat.co.il, but the full report for that year has not yet been published. The general editor of the reports is Dr. Avraham Carmeli. For further information in Hebrew, see here.
 This festival has traditionally invited shows by Arab theatre companies and artists as well as Jewish experimental theatre creators. It has also been a space in which artists with non-mainstream views have been allowed to present their performance works, and, in the past, there has never been any attempt to censor the artistic director and the shows being put on in Acre. For more on the controversy over the Acre Festival, see: Yair Ashkenazi, “Israeli Culture Minister Backs Festival Ban of Play About Palestinians,” Ha’aretz, June 6, 2017. Read more.
 For more on the attempts by Minister Regev to close down the Al-Midan theatre, see Yair Ashkenazi, “Culture Ministry Haults Funding to Haifa’s Al-Midan Theatre,” Ha’aretz, June 16, 2015. Read more.
On the attempt to cut the funding of the Jaffa Theatre, see Yair Ashkenazi, “Israel Weighs Cutting Funding to Jaffa Theatre Over Alleged Incitement,” Ha’aretz, Sept. 6, 2017. Read more. It is important to note two facts when discussing these matters:
- Since 1990, there is no official censorship on plays and theatre performances in Israel, and thus the Ministry cannot close any theatre or show. However, Ms. Regev has been trying to use the idea that she may not have the right to censor any shows, but that she does claim the right to deny funding to theatres she believes are working to undermine the state and its values or supporting terrorists (the official clause she has used to try to suspend funding to the two theatres she has attacked).
- At the moment, the legal battle over Ms. Regev’s funding policies is up in the air, with the Ministry of Finance and the Chief Prosecutor’s office claiming that she does not have the legal right to implement such budget cuts, and effectively blocking her attempts. Also, the courts have demanded that she reinstitute all the budgets she has held back from the Al-Midan Theatre for the last two years.
 Of the many playwrights involved in this style of light, comic theatre, the one name that stands out in recent years is Gur Koren, whose delightful comedies, The Disabled (Beit Lessin, 2015) and The Actress (Beit Lessin, 2016), combined realistic and imaginary elements in a manner that was witty, original and full of playful invention. The second play, which tells the story of a young Jewish actress who comes to Tel Aviv to develop her career but then gets involved in a plot against the British forces in Palestine, in 1947, carried within its lightweight romantic framework a kind of darker, subversive vision. In this play, Koren toyed comically with the idea that, perhaps, the ending of the British Mandate, in 1948, and the setting up of the State of Israel was actually not such a great victory for the Jewish people. Maybe the continuation of the Mandate might have allowed Jews and Arabs a better chance at co-existence and the creation of a normal multi-ethnic society.
Ashkenazi, Yair. “Culture Ministry Haults Funding to Haifa’s Al-Midan Theatre.” Ha’aretz, June 16, 2015. See here.
—. “Israeli Culture Minister Backs Festival Ban of Play About Palestinians.” Ha’aretz, June 6, 2017. See here.
—. “Israel Weighs Cutting Funding to Jaffa Theatre Over Alleged Incitement.” Ha’aretz, Sept. 6 2017. See here.
Carmeli, Avraham, ed. The Public Theatres in Israel (2015), report published by Pilat Centre for Research and Analysis on Culture, October 2016. See here.
Halevy, Emanuel. Habima – Israel’s National Theatre 1917-1979. Tel Aviv: Akad, 1981.
Kaynar, Gad. “National Theatre as Colonized Theatre: The Paradox of Habima.” Theatre Journal 50.1 (March 1998): 1-20.
*Shai Bar Yaacov is a theatre critic, teacher and director. He lectures at the Theatre Studies Department of Hebrew University. He has also taught at Haifa University and the School for Visual Theatre. As of 2000, he is the theatre critic of Yedioth Ahronot, the largest circulation daily newspaper in Israel; he also does reviews for Galei Zahal radio station.