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To each his Via DolorosaWhy should one of England's leading playwrights choose to write, and then perform, a dramatic monologue on the Arab-Israeli conflict? Sir David Hare speaks to Aleks Sierz* about the reasons behind the choice of subject of his latest play
Eight decades ago Britain provided Israel with its birth certificate, the Balfour Declaration, the product of a decade-long friendship between a Russian émigré, Chaim Weizman, and a leading British statesman, Arthur James Balfour.
"Continental Zionists had dreamed dreams. But British statesmen could see visions and possessed power to begin to make them a reality," wrote former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson in his book The Chariot of Israel. And until today the interplay between Zionism and Britain's political establishment continues to capture the imagination of British intellectuals.
Last week a new play on the subject opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Via Dolorosa, a one-man show written and performed by the prominent British playwright Sir David Hare, received rapturous reviews from all sections of the British press. It was even depicted as an enormous creative risk that may prove to be detrimental to Hare's career now that he is bent on taking on Israel. Many Arabs who watched the play, however, felt disappointed that Hare's depiction of the 50 year Arab-Israeli struggle stopped short of tackling the fundamental moral issues involved. In an interview conducted for Al-Ahram Weekly in London, David Hare says: "When I first did a workshop version of Via Dolorosa, people said to me: 'Oh the Palestinians come off so much better than the Jews.' Some Jews said that the play made them ashamed of being Jewish. So I changed the balance, whereby I hope I have made the Israelis, apart from the settlers, as attractive as the Palestinians."
Playwright David Hare takes to the stage
Just when London intellectuals were convinced that there is no space for political drama in London's theatreland (which is now divided between populist musicals, boulevard comedies and postmodern "in-yer-face" work by young dramatists), Sir David Hare's new play, Via Dolorosa, has captured the attention and imagination of Britain's liberal intelligentsia and received rapturous reviews from all sections of the press for its account of Middle Eastern politics. Like a traveller returning after a long sojourn in distant lands, Hare has enjoyed a warm welcome on his own home ground.
"I have just received from Herbert Samuel a memorandum headed 'The Future of Palestine'. He goes on to argue, at considerable length and with some vehemence, in favour of the British annexation of Palestine, a country the size of Wales, much of it barren mountain and part of it waterless. He thinks we might plant in this not very promising territory about three or four million European Jews, and that this would have a good effect upon those who are left behind. It reads almost like a new edition of Tancred brought up to date. I confess I am not attracted by this proposed addition to our responsibilities, but it is a curious addition to Dizzy's favourite maxim that 'race is everything' to find this almost lyrical outburst proceeding from the well-ordered and methodical brain of H. S."
Personal diary of Asquith, then Britain's prime minister, 28 January, 1915
Via Dolorosa is a 90-minute monologue based on a series of visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories. In it, Hare recreates the characters of the people he met and talked to on his trips. But what has particularly attracted audiences to the Royal Court Theatre (at present temporarily situated in the Duke of York's in St Martin's Lane) has been the fact that Hare has agreed to perform his own play.
He has not acted since he was 15, when he appeared with Christopher Hampton (who is now also a playwright) in a school production of Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons, a piece aptly enough about Sir Thomas More and his crisis of faith. Every night, dressed simply in an open-necked white shirt and grey trousers, Hare takes the stage and quietly but passionately performs his monologue.
In its journalistic style of reportage, Via Dolorosa marks a break from Hare's last two plays -- Skylight (1995) and Amy's View (1997) -- which were mainly about personal relationships, and also from his epic political trilogy of the early 1990s which anatomised the state of the nation to see what effects the legacy of Thatcherism has had on British public life. Yet there is no real contradiction here. In Via Dolorosa, Hare says that: "It is only now that I realise, almost without noticing, that for some time my subject as a playwright has been faith. My subject is belief. And so it comes to seem appropriate -- no, more than that, it comes to seem urgent -- that the 50-year-old British playwright should finally visit the 50-year-old state."
But why the fascination with faith and why this particular state? "Well," says Hare, "people always say that in England we lead shallow lives. Our lives are shallow because we live in a country where nobody believes in anything any more. My whole life, I've been told: 'Western civilisation? An old bitch gone in the teeth.' And so people say, go to Israel. Because in Israel they're fighting for something they believe in."
When I talk to Hare, my first question is about his choice of the Middle East. After all, there are many places in the world where faith plays a strong role in society. What was his personal motivation for going to Israel and the Palestinian territories?
"It's a bit weird," he says. "When I wrote the film Paris by Night in 1988, the character who's an English MP, and is played by Charlotte Rampling, goes to France and finds herself at a table of French Jews who are having an argument about the meaning of Jewishness. She envies their vitality -- because she's English and fucked up, she doesn't have the same authenticity as they have.
"And then, six years ago, the night before I got married [to fashion designer Nicole Farhi], I was sitting at a table of 13 French Jews and I thought: this is bizarre, I've already written this scene. It was one of those prophetic situations -- a writer writes something and then it happens. So obviously, part of my interest in the Middle East comes from marrying into a Jewish family and being intrigued by the arguments between assimilationists and isolationists. And by the very different attitudes of Jews to Israel.
"Then when the International Department of the Royal Court Theatre asked me to write a play about the British Mandate in Palestine, I went to the Middle East. While I was there, I felt that the situation couldn't really be made into a play -- I became troubled by questions about the role of art. Are there some things, like the Holocaust, which you simply cannot represent? So the only way of doing justice to what was happening was by me standing up on stage and just talking about it. Then the first idea was to suggest that three of us do it together. In other words, a Palestinian writer, an Israeli writer and myself would all write monologues and we would present them on the same evening."
Although this project was one way of resolving Hare's doubts about the problems of representing politics in art, it soon ran into another kind of problem. "However," he says, "the Palestinian was not at this point willing to sit on the same stage as the Israeli, however friendly they might be in private. Such a public gesture would have been too great. Who knows what will eventually happen to the idea of the three of us appearing together, but at moment I'm just doing my monologue."
To illustrate the tensions in the region, Hare talks about the George Ibrahim and Eran Baniel co-production of Romeo and Juliet in Jerusalem (when the Palestinians played the Capulets and the Israelis the Montagues), and points out that "the Palestinian producer would not allow this version of Shakespeare to happen today because, since the decay of the peace process, these kind of gestures by the Palestinians are very, very rare and unwelcome in their society."
Hare is extremely discrete about not giving the names of some of the people he met in the Middle East. "It's no joke writing a play about Palestine -- I had to protect the identities of people who said things to me in private. It seems to me that I have no moral right to endanger anybody. Open criticism of the Arafat regime is not an easy thing to do. Of course, there are people like Edward Said who enjoy a high status within Palestinian society and who are effectively bulletproof. Said can say what he likes and he has said some very harsh things about the regime. But ordinary Palestinians cannot publicly say harsh things about the regime and so nine-tenths of what was said to me by Palestinians I have had to cut or to subsume into the text.
"By the way, Said is very excited by the play: he feels that Palestinians are in such an impoverished state in the world media that for anyone to speak about Palestine is wonderful. For a Western playwright to put on a play about the subject in the centre of London is for him a great thing to do."
But Hare is also acutely aware of the "ethical problem of portraying people in what is after all a fictional context". One of the strengths of Hare's performance of Via Dolorosa is its simplicity -- he never tries to imitate or mimic the people he quotes. But what about the politics of representation -- isn't Via Dolorosa just a liberal form of orientalism?
"Well," he says, "the reason the play is called Via Dolorosa is that I don't pretend to be anything but an outsider. I come from a Christian culture and the play is saying: the Middle East is very interesting to me because I come from a different tradition. In fact, the play wouldn't make sense without the epilogue in which I return up the Finchley Road in London, 'passion receding up the broad tree-lined streets' until I come home to Fitzjohns Avenue. So the play is tied to my own life and to th question which to me is the most important: Do we in England lead shallow lives in comparison with people in the Middle East? And I leave everyone in the audience to judge for themselves. On some nights when I mention Fitzjohns Avenue it gets a roar of laughter because it's so banal; but on other nights it gets a deep sigh as if people are thinking: 'Well, Fitzjohns Avenue may be less dramatic but it's just as profound.' So I'm not pretending to be anything but a bloke who is interested from the outside -- and that is the only honest position."
But being an outsider doesn't mean you can't be critical. "It's the right to criticise that I'm asserting in the play and I'm against being blackmailed into silence." Talking about the Palestinians, Hare says: "In Gaza, I was very surprised by how profound the antagonism was to the incoming leadership from Tunis. They were seen as people who have come from abroad who were not there during the years of struggle and who are now reaping the financial benefits. I have a lot of material about corruption but I didn't use it because I don't need to make this point at length. People in Gaza feel that they were fighting for something else in the 1980s and that the men from Tunis have stolen their revolution: Arafat is building a casino in Jerico which ordinary Palestinians are not even allowed to go to -- that typifies the sort of society he wants to create. Arafat was once meant to be a revolutionary. His regime is now so corrupt and relies so much on torture that it is hard to defend it.
"Just compare him to Nelson Mandela. Mandela instinctively understood what his people wanted -- he may have failed to deliver, but he understands what they have suffered because he's suffered with them. But Arafat has been a leader in exile and is behaving like an itinerant tyrant, unresponsive to his people's needs. Socialist politics in Palestinian territories are at a low ebb and are dissipated either in terrorism or in the moral position taken by Haider Abdel-Shafi, who says: 'Until we have internal reform, we cannot negotiate with Israel.' I have a great deal of respect for Shafi -- if I lived in Gaza I would feel the same."
The theme of a revolution betrayed has particular resonance for Hare because he began his theatrical career as a writer who was clearly identified with the socialist left, which was equally critical of liberal-left playwrights such as Arnold Wesker as of right-wing writers such as Tom Stoppard. In his early work -- for example, Slag (1970) and Fanshen (1975) -- Hare's commitment to left-wing ideas was clear.
"What I mean by saying that my subject is faith," Hare says, "is that continuously I've written about people who have an ideal, some motivation that is higher than filling your stomach and being nice to your neighbour. This does not have to be religious -- in the 1970s, I wrote about political belief and people's disillusionment with that belief."
Since then, he has followed a trend which, in common with much of the cultural and political left in Britain, has grown into a more humanistic and liberal position which, while it criticises Tony Blair's Labour government, does not have a specifically radical agenda for Britain.
Hare's research about the Middle East has convinced him that the question of Palestinian identity is central. "The Palestinians are a deeply confused and displaced people -- if their government is malfunctioning, this is hardly surprising given the circumstances. The leaders don't know what territory they're administering or for whom they speak. In Via Dolorosa, I deal with the philosophical question: 'What is a Jew?' But there is also the philosophical question: 'What is a Palestinian? And what is their relationship to the rest of the Arab world?' Plainly these are fantastically complex questions which cannot be dealt with adequately in one short play."
Quoting Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir's remark that "there is no such thing as a Palestinian, only southern Syrians", Hare says that "the Palestinians are a people almost denied an identity." Discussing the situation of Palestinians living in Israel, Hare praises David Grossman's book Sleeping on a Wire, and goes on to mention divisions within the Palestinian camp.
In Via Dolorosa, for example, he meets the poet Hussein Barghouti in Ramallah. Commenting on an argument with George Ibrahim, co-producer of Romeo and Juliet, Barghouti says: "This has been a typical Palestinian conflict. No search for common ground whatsoever." Barghouti also makes a strong point about the cultural politics of seeing the Middle East through Western eyes. "Did you see The English Patient? Foreground action: white people, noble, fine feelings, strong, full of laughter, walking in gardens, taking showers, standing up! Background action: Arabs, shifty, mysterious, dirty, untrustworthy, sitting down!" Why this negative vision of Arabs? "Because the world needs an enemy," says Barghouti. After the Cold War, the West needs another scapegoat.
Hare is acutely conscious of the problems involved in the politics of representation. He says: "When I first did a workshop version of Via Dolorosa, people said to me: 'Oh the Palestinians come off so much better than the Jews.' Some Jews said that the play made them ashamed of being Jewish. So I changed the balance, whereby I hope I have made the Israelis, apart from the settlers, as attractive as the Palestinians."
As a result, Via Dolorosa is presented as a humanistic, well-balanced and liberal account of the Middle East seen by a fair-minded visitor. Much of its humour comes from Hare being an outsider who is watching another family's quarrel. But being an outsider, claims Hare, also gives him a more general insight into the possibilities of creating peace.
"One of the reasons for writing the play," he says, "is that it seems to me unhealthy for a passionate argument to be conducted only by those who are involved. If you let outsiders into the quarrel, then some of the sting will be taken out of that quarrel. But at the moment, Netanyahu won't let any voice of reason be heard."
Only outside intervention, argues Hare, can put the peace process on track again. "Plainly, the way the Palestinians are being treated by the Israelis is outrageous. Which brings me back to Shafi's argument when he says that only by reforming ourselves will we solve the problem. We won't solve the problem by being a corrupt little crypto-capitalist state arguing over inches of land. But Shafi spent 20 months in Washington and he came back with a profound sense of futility because he did not believe that the West has any real wish to see this region's problems solved. Clinton has a sense of vision about Northern Ireland, but he has no sense of vision about the Middle East."
But did going to the Middle East help Hare to confront the crisis of his own beliefs? "Yes, exactly. I liked meeting people on both sides who were articulate and impassioned. It was wonderful to go to a place where that kind of discussion was going on. As a privileged visitor from the West, it's like a night class. Going to hear people who are thinking deeply about the kind of society they want to create. Both sides have an admirable tradition of airing ideas within the context of political action. This contrasts with the present poverty of political discourse in Britain. In fact, what I'm doing with Via Dolorosa is trying to pull theatre back to a fact-based theatre where the audience knows more when they leave than when they went in."
Hare's conclusions about the nature of belief arise from what you could call his passionate neutrality. "As I've said, what's fascinated me as a writer has been the question of living by some higher motivation, some ideal. For Via Dolorosa, I had to go to a region where the idealism is not always very attractive. I go to places where there is an apocalyptic tinge to idealism and sheer brute ignorance and antagonism to the way that other people live, all of which comes out of the so-called idealism. In the Israeli settlements, there is this distasteful mixture of idealism about your own values and complete insensitivity to other people. So in my play I am saying that idealism can be a double-edged sword."
For London audiences, Via Dolorosa has been both educative and entertaining. The news that Hare brings from the Middle East both confirms the public's need for balanced reportage and affirms the power of theatre to stimulate and provoke.
* Aleks Sierz is a theatre critic who is currently writing a book on contemporary British theatre.
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