Finding a ready market for a Hebrew Hamlet

Purple cabbage, olives and red peppers: it's amazing what a little bit of talent can do to a vegetable
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The Independent Culture
YESTERDAY I decided to walk to the theatre and so trekked along grim Allenby Street, a winding avenue in Tel Aviv pitted with the habits of the past - the Jewish past. One jewellery shop after another, the trades of an old, restricted world. Small shops (most of them no more than holes in the wall) filled with gold baubles and watches, manned by a solitary person sitting in gloomy shadows eating his lonely sandwich, staring out into the too-familiar street.

The past still hangs like a shroud over Israel while the present breaks through jutting, monstrous facsimiles of New York skyscrapers, ultra-modern chunks towering over the crumbling, broken, old Tel Aviv. Everywhere I walk I notice car-bomb deterrents: small, concrete dunghills shat out by some monster. They line the large stores along Dizengoff Street and, of course, the American Embassy, which looks like a fortress.

I like walking along Allenby Street since it's a real vein of Israeli life - simple, working-class - with occasional pit stops for staving off hunger with a pitta filled with falafel and shredded, brightly coloured vegetables - purple cabbage, red peppers, green peppers - and hummus. Like a magician you must try to stuff as much as you can into the tiny half of pitta and then, with even more ingenuity, attempt to wedge a part of that fat parcel into your mouth. The hummus at this stage tends to burst through the envelope, splattering your clothes, and so you grab yards of tissues and continue down the street, half attempting to enjoy your feast and half wiping the debris you make as you do it.

There's a wonderful market midway down Allenby Street where the stalls are piled high with the kind of food you expect to see in the Middle East: mountains of olives in every shade and size; small, crunchy pickles, which I adore; slabs of herrings; piles of smoked mackerel, and, my deep favourite, an aubergine dip - this is an irresistible metamorphosis of the simple aubergine into a flavour of paradise.

It's amazing what a little bit of talent can do to a vegetable. As I walk through the market after a day at the theatre I become intoxicated as my head swims in the smells and the colours, the sights and the sounds of this market.

It's night, and there is excitement as the shoppers seem feverish to grab the last moments. I buy some bagels but these are unlike anything I have ever tasted before. They are hard on the outside like pretzels and soft within, and so anointing your chunk of bagel with aubergine and pickle approaches nirvana. At the end of the Carmel market is old Tel Aviv and the sea.

Back on Allenby Street I pass an antiquated, dusty hat shop, which is guarded by a man who stands outside looking a little forlorn as he stares into space with watery eyes. His shop might be something that existed in the old Warsaw ghetto or in some neglected little side-street in Vienna. He seems to know that few people will visit him today, but what else is there for him to do?

So they sit, reading the papers which always discuss the same thing in different words each day until your head grows weary with reading about the peace process and Bibi Netanyahu's constant whine about security, which becomes as interesting as an old record played over and over again. Nothing else is ever stated and nothing else renews the spirit, since things stagnate until they move, and in the stagnation Israel festers and decays while the cancer of anti-Semitism and hatred multiplies day by day in the villages, in the refugee camps, in the cities of the Arab world.

Bibi is universally detested by the intelligent Israeli public and adored by the strange bedfellows of colonialists, fundamentalists and born-again Brooklyn and Cape Town Jews, who strut around Hebron with Uzis like some ancient pioneers in the Wild West. They are apt to quote God when claiming parcels of land, as if the great one were some kind of estate agent of the sky. While there is a physical attachment to much of Israel and there has always been a Jewish presence in Jerusalem, there is a growing, vocal concern about trampling on the rights of those who have existed here for centuries.

At the end of Allenby Street I stop for a cappuccino and sit outside a smart coffee house. I notice a cigar-chewing man sitting there, his mobile ever present while his stinking, pseudo-phallic symbol curls its fetid tentacles round my nostrils. What I loathe about cigar smokers and mobile-phone abusers is that they have to share their wretched habit with everyone. Why can't they do it in the toilet?

I am directing Hamlet for the Haifa Theatre Company, based on a production I did in 1980, and which toured Israel then. Apparently it left a distinct impression which may have become mythologised in one or two minds over the years, and now, 20 years later, I am repeating it, this time in Hebrew. I have directed Shakespeare in Australia, Germany, New York and now Israel, and it seems to thrive in each country - and not only thrive but positively combust, as if a little foreign travel revives the old guy. All of us love a change of environment.

Being the political animals that Israelis are, they are quick to see parallels in Hamlet with their own situation. Claudius, the murderer of Hamlet's father, is seen as Netanyahu, whose virulent attacks on Rabin (his supporters even going to far as to taint Rabin as a Nazi) certainly fuelled the kind of hatred that inspired his assassin. Hamlet's famous anti-war speech, in which he laments fighting for a patch of land and the loss of lives, also finds an answering echo here.

Our Hamlet, a skilled actor called Doran Tavory, is an expressive, highly physical actor who would find few competitors in Britain. I think how lucky our actors are, since they are rarely tested against other players as musicians would be, or dancers or even boxers. Language fortunately cocoons us and we have to compete only with Americans in the main; and even that is weighted in our favour, with embargoes on actors.

Instead Doran has to find his audience only in Israel, but the theatres certainly find them and leave no audience unturned.

I recall my enormous frustration while directing Shakespeare in New York when, at the end of the limited run for a limited audience, there was absolutely zilch interest in touring the production anywhere and so the actors were thrown on the dung-heap of unemployment again - when there were theatres all over the US that they could have played in. People are hungry for Shakespeare in America, and the actors would have found work and developed their skills.

Here, at least, they tour to every city in this small country, and productions may go on for more than a year! And this is a nation of less than 4 million people. After touring the theatres, productions will go to schools and after schools to the kibbutzim and, after the kibbutzim, even to the factories.