The occasion is Via Dolorosa, the playwright's witty, passionate and highly thought-provoking personal meditation on a recent trip he made to Israel, a state which, like him, is celebrating its half-century. An atheist from a Christian background, he'd declined previous invitations. But then he began to notice that, for some time now, faith and belief have been his subjects as a dramatist. What intrigued him was the seemingly stark contrast between Britain and Israel. In the former, it feels as though you don't have to believe in anything any more: in the latter, beliefs and fighting stands are mandatory. So off he went.
One of the many revealing comic moments in Hare's travelogue comes when he is explaining his perception of Britain to the Israeli cast rehearsing his play, Amy's View, at a theatre in Tel-Aviv. He tells them that Tel- Aviv may be the worst place in the world to perform Amy's View; as here, everyone passionately argues about where their country is heading. In England, on the other hand, Tony Blair is all things to all men. He'll do whatever he thinks is popular. At which point, an Israeli actor promptly pipes up: "Oh please, please - send us your Tony Blair!"
You begin to see where this man is coming from. As Hare travels and meets people, it becomes clearer that the divisions between secular and religious Jews are as deep, and sometimes as virulent, as those between Jew and Arab. For the secular brigade, the idea that stones and land could matter more than a life is profoundly un-Jewish, a deformation started by the Six Day War.
By contrast, the Jews he visits who have settled as an act of defiance, on hitherto Arab territory, see nothing anomalous or farcical in requiring the services of 4,000 Israeli troops to defend an enclave of 521 of them. It's no paradox that his hostess here withdraws from Hare when she realises that his wife, Nicole Farhi, is Jewish. She doesn't approve of assimilationists. And when Hare crosses from Israel to the Gaza strip (a process likened to moving from California to Bangladesh), he finds that the Arabs are just as internally divided, by corruption, in a society where there are more people in prison under Arafat than there were under the Israelis.
On the stripped-back, atmospherically lit stage, Hare's performance begins a bit awkwardly. In his white shirt and trousers, he has the air, at the start, of a touchingly self-conscious head prefect and captain of cricket. He builds impressively in confidence, though, bringing to life a whole gallery of interlocutors, not through impersonation or point- scoring, but through the often comic intensity with which he reports, and engages with, their arguments.
What gives the evening its emotional pull is the way the dramatist, in the light of what he sees, questions his own values and re-examines his own preoccupations with faith and society. Watching pious pilgrims kneel to kiss a sacred stone whose position is hotly disputed prompts him to ask what it is they are kissing: a stone or an idea? This leads him to wonder, more generally and reverberatingly: "Are we where we live, or are we what we think. What matters? Stones or ideas? Stones or ideas?" Hare's excellent script and Stephen Daldry's beautifully modulated production leave such questions resonating powerfully in the mind. We can only hope that they decide to take this piece to Northern Ireland.
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