Reviewed by Hannah August.
The final week of the Globe to Globe opened with The Merchant of Venice, performed in Hebrew by Israel’s Habima National Theatre. The political controversy created by the programming of this company is something I’ll come to: artistically, it was a proficient and enjoyable production, with uniformly strong performances, particularly from Hila Feldman as a feisty yet vulnerable Portia, and Tomer Sharon as a confidently cheeky Launcelot Gobbo. The company made good use of the Globe stage and minimal props – there was some beautiful mime of ‘being in a gondola’, and the three caskets which contain Portia’s suitors’ destinies were delightfully embodied headpieces. A couple of clever staging decisions brought out the callousness of Bassanio and his chums, something that productions often whitewash: we first meet Shylock (Jacob Cohen) when he is joyfully set upon and beaten by the young men of Venice dressed as carnival revellers (shades of A Clockwork Orange), and when Bassanio (Yousef Sweid) correctly chooses the lead casket and wins Portia’s hand in marriage, he will not kiss her until she’s signed over her assets to him. There should always be an uneasiness about deciding who to root for in this play, and Habima’s production captured this perfectly – except that, given the circumstances surrounding the performance, most of the audience was simply rooting for everyone, clapping at the end of each scene to encourage the actors to keep going in the face of repeated interruptions from pro-Palestinian protesters.
Their choice of an Israeli theatrical performance as a site for political protest was intriguing for a variety of reasons. Anyone familiar with the play and its problematic attitudes towards Judaism could anticipate that Habima’s would be an interesting production, regardless of how safely it was played (and it was pretty safe) – for Shylock’s persecutors to be themselves speaking the language that in Western settings marks him out as ‘other’ inevitably changes the range of meanings that the play makes available to an audience. That theatre – or art in general – might mean something, and that that something might be mercurial, that it might resonate in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with the dominant political ideology of the country in which it was produced, seemed not to have registered with the activists who chose to picket and disrupt last night’s performance.
What frustrated me about the conversations I had with the protestors affiliated to the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign who had gathered outside the Globe before the performance was not so much that their idea of a conversation was to aggressively bombard an interested and relatively sympathetic passer-by with clichéd rhetoric – it was that none of them knew anything about the production. They knew, they said, that Habima was state-sponsored – and because they believed in a total boycott of all Israeli art and culture, that was grounds on which to picket the production.
I found this pretty perturbing. I happen to believe that international boycotts can be important and effective: one of the events writ large in the history of my own country is the controversial 1981 Springbok rugby tour, which proceeded despite widespread protests against the South African apartheid regime, justified by the NZ government of the time on the grounds that there were “no politics in sport”. Such a statement is based on a denial of the way that national sports teams are caught up with national identity – certainly after nearly five years living in the UK I am acutely aware of the way that ‘The All Blacks’ is, for many people, effectively a metonym for ‘New Zealand’.
But art is a different kettle of fish entirely. Art’s meanings are multiple, are changeable, contingent, ungovernable. Refusing to allow artists to do their work shuts down not only the meanings those boycotting the art expect it to have, but also the meanings it may have for those who watch it or read it without prejudgement. The thing about campaigning against freedom of expression in one country is that it inevitably means that you also campaign against freedom of interpretation in your own.
What the protesters might have seen, had they chosen to engage with the production on its own terms, is that, within the context of a London performance to a largely non-Hebrew-speaking audience, one of the meanings that the performance offered was in fact sympathetic to their cause. Phenomenologically, when all the characters speak in a language that is a signifier of Judaism, the grounds for Shylock’s persecution can no longer reside primarily in the fact that he is a Jew. Instead, one meaning available to those audience members who must follow the story visually rather than aurally, is that his persecution stems from the fact that he represents a minority group denied rights and land by a Hebrew-speaking majority (the production’s final interpolated scene gave us Shylock, his home and property confiscated, forlornly circling the stage, suitcase in hand). It does not involve a hugely sophisticated knowledge of the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations to be able to make the interpretive leap the visual metaphor encourages.
I am not saying that the identification of Habima’s Shylock as a persecuted Palestinian is the ‘meaning’ the production aims at: I am saying that it is one meaning among many that is made available to audience members who are permitted the freedom to interpret it as art, rather than as Israeli agitprop. “All art is political”, snapped one protester when I attempted to convey this: I happen to agree, certainly in relation to this particular play, but I think that the ways it is political can be both various and unexpected. Above all, the protestors’ decision to time their disruptions of the performance with each of Shylock’s scenes struck me as betraying a particularly simplistic reading of the Shakespearean text. It was disappointing to see that the protest’s tagline was “Hath not a Palestinian eyes?” – even a GCSE student is capable of reading Shylock’s speech enumerating the common features of Jews and Christians as a plea for the recognition of a common humanity that transcends ethnic or religious difference. The power of Shakespeare’s rhetoric automatically raises the speech to a level where it is no longer about Jews and Christians – or not only. Shakespeare can speak for Palestine without clumsy adaptation – but only if the multiple meanings of art are acknowledged, and his voice is allowed to be heard.
Theories of conflict resolution acknowledge that progress is only ever achieved through communication: theatre cannot help but communicate. In inviting Habima National Theatre to perform as part of the Globe to Globe festival, Israel has been placed in a forum for artistic communication in which Hebrew Shakespeare is forced to speak to 36 polyglot Shakespeares from around the world – including Palestinian Arabic, the language of Ashtar Theatre’s Richard II, which was performed in the second week of the festival. Hats off to the Globe for doing so.
The Globe to Globe festival at Shakespeare’s Globe finishes on the 3rd of June.