A couple of weeks after his adaptation of “The Blue Room” closed, and only days before his superior “Amy’s View” is due to arrive, British playwright David Hare is himself installed on Broadway with “Via Dolorosa,” which opened last night at the Booth Theatre.
Hare’s tendency to use the theater as a platform for exploring political ideas has produced mixed results in the past. But while “Via Dolorosa” – the title is a reference to the path Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion – is completely steeped in political concerns, it proves to be one of his more winning works.
As delivered by the author, “Dolorosa” is a 90-minute monologue that delves into the perpetual unrest in the Middle East. More of an oral essay or a journalistic report than a play, this challenging and fascinating evening of theater is based on what Hare learned when he visited Israel two years ago and interviewed both Jews and Palestinians.
While he clearly admired the passion behind their disputes, Hare discovered that he understood very little about the conflicts that rule the region – going back even before Israel was declared a state in 1948.
One of the principal aims of this wise and heartfelt work is to correct some of our own misconceptions, and to convey an accurate sense of what it is like to live in Israel today – where different factions seem “bound up in each other’s unhappiness.”
As he grapples with the thorny complexity lurking beneath the relevant issues, it becomes clear that Hare has no answers and that he advocates no clear solution. But beyond exploring the “fine line of distrust” between the Arabs and the Israelis, he also examines the widening gulf between secular and observing Jews.
According to one of Hare’s Jewish subjects, “We appear to be more divided now than at any point in our history.” And after Hare, a non-Jew, explains that his wife is Jewish, she is instantly accused of being “an assimilationist.”
Among the many colorful characters we meet are an American couple who moved to Israel in search of spiritual meaning. They explain that, in their new home, the national Memorial Day is a time to weep for the dead, not for seeking out mattress sales.
Hare’s pivotal interview is with Haider Abdel Shafi (“the most popular politician in Gaza”) and it is based on Shafi’s mistaken belief that Hare was David Hirst, a British journalist who had earlier exposed the corruption of Arafat’s regime.
Acknowledging that “ignorance and dismay make an unhappy cocktail,” Hare recalls a particularly argumentative lunch with a large group of Israelis at which, feeling tired, he tried “to avoid ‘trigger’ words like ‘Rabin’ and ‘Bible.’”
Though Hare maintains a sense of rationality in the midst of so many conflicting motives and inflamed emotions, he has an explosive moment of his own when he visits a Holocaust museum. After reading a document by Himmler that encouraged the systematic slaughter of the Jews, Hare rails that, “We’re all blind,” and that, “We all see only what we want to.” In the end, he is left “with a sense of loss.”
Following the acclaimed run of “Via Dolorosa” in London last fall, we can only be grateful to Lincoln Center for having the courage to import such an earnest and rigorously thought-provoking work to Broadway.
Political playwright David Hare is the gabbiest writer since Shaw. Not content with turning out approximately a play a month, he now insists we hear his views on the Middle East - and hear them neat, unmediated by fiction or actors. So he has devised a 90-minute monologue about a trip he made to Israel, Gaza and Ramallah, "Via Dolorosa," which he delivers himself at the Booth.
Wearing a white shirt and gray slacks, Hare is a spry, emphatic, melodramatic man of 50 (as old as Israel, as he points out). He strikes poses on the bare, open stage of the Booth, which has small central platform in the middle and two desks at either side.
Directed by Stephen Daldry, "Via Dolorosa" (the title refers to Jesus' Way of the Cross) is in essence a lecture enlivened by Hare's impersonations of various interlocutors. In these confrontations, Hare likes to play the wry naif merely come to ask questions and to observe; again and again, articulate and passionate lapel-grabbers unload their views on him.
Hare has, for all seeming passivity, an agenda. He is, of course, sympathetic to the idea of Israel, a "small, brown anchovy" of land to which "the most persecuted people of all times" came after the Holocaust "in the perfectly reasonable belief that would never be safe until they had a country of their own."
But something has, for Hare, gone wrong. It's those settlers, "religious Jews" living on "hitherto Arab land."
Philip Roth had urged Hare to go see "the maddest people I've ever met in my life." Hare asks a Jewish friend if Israel won't "one day have to become a modern country, multicultural like any other." Israel, answers the friend, ought not to want to own places; owning things is "profoundly un-Jewish."
Tel Aviv - secular, hedonistic, "Californian" Tel Aviv where, plays are put on - is his first stop. We hear of an actress who got religion and gave up theater because "fiction is wrong" - art is incompatible with piety. Driving to a settlement and watching the dry hills, Hare feels "the Jews do not belong here."
The settlement, where he meets American emigres, is "not unlike Bel Air or Santa Barbara"; it's a Steven Spielberg suburb.
Surprised to find one cosmopolitan settler, Hare is reassured when the talk turns apocalyptic, minutely theological and conspiratorial (about the Rabin assassination). In Jerusalem, Hare meets Benni Begin, and finds his religious attachment to the land pessimistic and a form of madness. ("Pessimism," is, in the vocabulary of the left, the opposite of "hope," and hence a bad thing.)
In Gaza, Palestinian politicians yearn for the heady days of the intifada. Now, with the cause of nationhood won and the Arafat clique mired in corruption and inefficiency, they're disillusioned and exhausted. In secular Ramallah, which Hare likes better because women wear dresses and alcohol is served, intellectuals fret over the portrayal of Arabs in U.S. films. (There are no Arabs in "Air Force One," though.)
Back in Jerusalem, Hare finds time for a swipe at Christianity, a pathetic and tacky "sideshow" here. Around this time in the show, a miniature Jerusalem appears above the stage, and Hare gestures in a pin spot; it's a moment of pure and pretentious kitsch.
His final encounter is with militantly secularist Israeli pol Shulamit Aloni, who rages at the "clergy" and the "greedy fascists" around Netanyahu. He has a bit of fun with Aloni, describing her as a "manic-depressive Melina Mercouri," but she's clearly his kind of fanatic - a fanatic for secularism. It's religion - passionately held religious belief - that disturbs Hare, and, by the way, the only intense believers we meet are Jewish; devout Arabs are absent.
More than once we get Hare's big idea - Israel should be less a place than a notion. "Stones or ideas?" Well, in Tony Blair's Great Britain, national identities may be squishily dissolving into Euromush, but with Hamas around the corner, there is much to be said for Israel's holding on to the dated old capitalistic concept of possession.
There he is, unmistakably, the Englishman abroad: stiff, self-conscious, bewildered, amused, always polite and always a bit embarrassed. His hands are locked tensely over his midriff; his smile is eager and uneasy. You've seen his kind before, probably, furrowing their brows over unpronounceable items on menus, making jokes over not knowing the word for water closet.
This particular Englishman, however, is grappling with something more than basic language and custom barriers. He is making his way through Israel and the Palestinian territories, and he finds himself in the presence of a ferocious, unconditional commitment to a place and an idea called home. Something to kill and to die for. Something indeed alien to a visiting stranger from a land of measured emotions and relative values, a place where, as he puts it with distancing crispness, ''nobody believes in anything anymore.''
Such is the persona, a graver, distinctly English variation on Mark Twain's traveling American innocents, worn by the British playwright David Hare in his sad, funny and deeply engaging one-man show, ''Via Dolorosa,'' which opened last night at the Booth Theater. Mr. Hare is not an actor by trade, and he uses whatever awkwardness he may feel at being alone on a stage to recreate the awkwardness of the outsider he was when he first visited the Middle East two years ago.
His perplexity has been given a formal, slightly exaggerated shape that is both affecting and, against the odds, truly theatrical. Working with the inventive director Stephen Daldry, best known here for the Broadway revival of ''An Inspector Calls,'' Mr. Hare transforms what might have been the sort of monologue with which Victorian travel writers once toured into a fluid dialogue between an observer and his subjects, people who will always puzzle him.
''Coals to Newcastle,'' said two of my friends, using exactly the same words on separate occasions, when told that Lincoln Center would be bringing ''Via Dolorosa'' to New York. It's true that the Gordian knot that is the Middle East is under perpetual discussion in this city, whether on radio or television, in heated dinner table arguments, or in the pages of newspapers and magazines.
Mr. Hare, however, isn't out to provide political analysis or even to create characters from within as he habitually does in his plays, works of fiery polemics and passions in their own right, like ''Plenty,'' ''Skylight'' and ''The Secret Rapture.'' He doesn't do proper impersonations as, say, Anna Deveare Smith does, in her one-woman representations of cultural conflict in America. Nor is he the unmoved, recording camera that Christopher Isherwood aspired to be in his stories of Berlin. Instead, without pretending to be anyone else, he channels the fraught, intense voices of Arabs and Jews, of politicians and theater people and bureaucrats, through the consciously limited, but far from insensate, instrument of his own solid self.
It all takes place on a stage that looks but isn't quite naked: a series of platforms with a bridge, artfully designed by Ian McNeil and lighted by Rick Fisher, that matches the deceptive simplicity of Mr. Hare's presentation and allows for one startling moment of visual epiphany.
The people whom Mr. Hare summons into being range widely. The Jewish and Arab co-producers (seen separately) of a ''Romeo and Juliet'' in Jerusalem vividly recall the eight-year creation of the production, with Palestinians and Jews as the Capulets and Montagues, that quickly turned out to be ''not about love but hate.'' Mr. Hare finds the fierce internal divisions within each of the opposing sides in short, resonant character portraits: of Haidar Abdel Shafi, a courtly, venerated politician in Gaza who speaks of internal corruption, ''a society where law is neglected and never enforced,'' and of Shulamit Aloni, a firebrand member of the former Yitzhak Rabin administration who is the inspiration for Mr. Hare's most poignant portraiture, and who says gloomily, ''We're going backwards,'' but still speaks with the ferocity of a fighter in the front ranks.
Mr. Hare spends a Sabbath in the West Bank home of transplanted Jewish-Americans, where dinner table discussion reaches such violent heights that he learns ''to avoid trigger words like Rabin or Bible.'' (Mr. Hare's pronunciation of those words here does indeed turn them into explosive devices.) Throughout, arguments over arcana of the Bible are as intense as those about contemporary animosities. Benny Begin, the son of Menachem, answers a question about Israeli objections to the Oslo accord by talking about a Hebrew message on a stone dating from nearly 600 B.C.
This ability to find ancient history as fresh and relevant as yesterday's bloodshed is described by Mr. Hare with a self-parodying air of intimidation, but the awe is genuine. This wonderment comes across even more clearly, in the work's most poetic passages, when Mr. Hare considers the very geography that has given rise to these emotions.
Traveling into the West Bank, he says, ''I feel the topography,'' and is confounded to find himself realizing that ''for the first time I understand how odd, how egregious Israel must look to the Arab eye.'' The contrasts between Arab and Israeli communities are delivered with a journalist's unsparing eye. Yet he pauses for a moment of rapture, after following the Via Dolorosa, the mythic but now prosaic-looking setting of Jesus' last walk through Jerusalem, and arrives on a plaza. Looking across the Mount of Olives, he says, ''Oh I see, how provoking it is to own beauty.''
Mr. Daldry has steered Mr. Hare into assuming large, expressly dramatic gestures, with raised arms and clenched fists, as if a more naturalistic posture wouldn't capture the magnitude of the emotions with which he is dealing. It should be noted that his performance has broadened somewhat, no doubt in reaction to the more responsive nature of American audiences, since I first saw it in London last fall. But its essence is the same. There is in his very presence an implicit question mark, a yearning both to understand and to know what it is like and to feel the certainty of the people he interviews, even as they admit the divisions among their own kind.
''My subject as a playwright has been faith,'' Mr. Hare says. More particularly, however, it has been the elusiveness of faith, as evidenced in his ''Amy's View,'' which opens on Broadway next month. The discrepancy between the individualism of Mr. Hare's world and the holistic worldviews of the lands he visits is what gives ''Via Dolorosa'' its particular dramatic tension. It does so in ways that allow for both rich humor and a wistful, wondering sorrow, emotional resonances that easily eclipse Mr. Hare's previous Broadway offering, the very successful and very disaffected ''Blue Room.''
At the show's end, Mr. Hare narrates, in reverberant detail, the process of returning to London, of arriving anew at the place he calls home. But there is implicitly another idea of home at work in ''Via Dolorosa,'' and that is the theater itself. In his opening remarks, Mr. Hare speaks of ''the elaborate conventions of theater, so loved -- by me at least -- so treasured. So much the very heart of my life.''
That heart beats reassuringly in ''Via Dolorosa.'' Even as the play examines irresoluble strife and antagonism, it finds the symmetry, patterns and even the beauty within. It finds, in other words, as good plays always will, the echoing poetry within the dangerous chaos that is life.
Solo shows are not a rarity on Broadway anymore, but David Hare's "Via Dolorosa" is nevertheless a daring piece of theater. The performer center stage at the Booth is not a rock 'n' rolling comedian (like the theater's most recent tenant, Sandra Bernhard) or a showbiz veteran taking a trip down memory lane (such as Bernhard's Booth predecessor Jerry Herman), but Hare himself, a playwright whose previous acting experience was limited, as he jocularly tells the audience, to a school production of "A Man for All Seasons." And his subject is not a solipsistic jaunt through his own life in the theater, but territory far removed from the milieu of an esteemed and prolific British playwright: the fractious land of Israel and the West Bank.
Why do we need a gentile British author to give us another window on a region whose rippling conflicts are closely watched by this city's large Jewish population and widely covered in the news? You might as well ask why we need theater at all. Hare's unique talents and seeming remoteness from the issues at hand are precisely what make this journey of the heart and mind so theatrically invigorating. While only a disinterested party could observe with such evenhanded intelligence the terrible divisions of the region, only a writer of considerable dramatic gifts could bring them to such entertaining life.
"Are we where we live, or are we what we think?" Hare pointedly asks toward the end, and the play is ultimately a testament to art's capacity to enlarge our vision of the world to embrace even the most alien of cultures, to forge an intimate connection with people whose struggles are not our own but are in some measure profoundly universal. In the case of the people of "Via Dolorosa," the struggle is how to forge a meaningful, safe place in the world without moral compromise or culpability.
In truth "Via Dolorosa" is not a solo show at all; in the course of an hour and a half, Hare populates the stage with an entire world of people and ideas, though he remains costumed in just a plain white shirt and black slacks, and is aided only by the studiously barren backstage set of Ian MacNeil and the artfully crisp white lighting of Rick Fisher.
Hare cheerfully admits his limited experience as a performer ("Normally I get Judi Dench to do this sort of thing," he cracks early on), and one of the charms of the show is his slightly awkward stage presence. While Hare performs with a sort of gawky exuberance under Stephen Daldry's elegant and unobtrusive direction (he's both more lively and more at ease than at the beginning of the show's fall London run), he still seems slightly reserved, like a schoolboy giving his first oral report.
The show was inspired by a series of trips Hare took to Israel, where everyday existence is infused with a "necessary dramatization" and an air of purposeful striving gives life "a meaning and shape that eludes the rest of us in the endless wash of 'What the hell are we doing here?' "
Hare's tour is guided by a series of vividly drawn personalities for whom politics and religion are the bread and butter of daily intercourse, not idle talkshow fare to be tuned in or out with the click of a remote control. Through elegantly narrated and comically re-created interviews with Arabs and Jews, theater directors and professional politicians, West Bank settlers and Palestinian activists, Hare gives us a travelogue that's both emotional and historical, as personal as it is political.
The landmarks of Israel's past are all touched upon: the invention of the Zionist movement (by a playwright -- who knew?); the Six-Day war; the Oslo accord; the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. But there's nothing dense or lecturely about the show: Hare's dramatic gifts combine happily with the passionate personalities he enthusiastically impersonates to turn the complexities of the narrative into engaging theater.
Hare doesn't have a hard time forging drama from the material at hand -- terrible conflicts are the lifeblood of the land. Israeli director Eran Baniel, sipping merlot, describes the increasing tensions between secular and religious Jews ("They smile and smile and rob the country blind," he rages of the publicly supported Yeshiva students). In the West Bank, where 521 Jews are protected in air-conditioned splendor "not unlike Bel Air" by 4,000 soldiers, a family of fanatical settlers excoriate the compromises of Rabin and vow eternal occupation of God-given land. Other Israelis are equally enraged by the tactics of Netanyahu.
Hare also journeys "through the mirror into Israel's twin, its underside." In the Gaza strip, he sees the desperate poverty that is a result of the region's saddest irony: a historically persecuted people turned into callous overlords of an abused minority. Palestinian historian Albert Aghazerin sums up the tortured relationship between the region's Jews and Arabs with grim succinctness: "In some way we are bound up in each other's unhappiness. We cannot be separated."
Despite its passionate intelligence and headline-fresh subject matter -- or, sad to say, perhaps because of them -- "Via Dolorosa" may well have a difficult time finding audiences to sustain a three-month run in a Broadway house, particularly among this spring's heavy-hitting lineup of dramas (including, of course, Hare's own "Amy's View"). But it's a work that stretches the familiar contours of the solo show in exciting new directions: Instead of the traditional personal history, Hare offers history personalized. And if theater may be said to consist of histories -- personal, political, emotional -- brought to immediate life, what better region to illustrate the idea than Israel, where history is perhaps more intensely alive than anywhere else on the globe.