'Artists should not boycott other artists'

Israeli theatre company Habima's version of The Merchant of Venice at the Globe is dividing the arts world. Boyd Tonkin hears their side of the story

As a fierce May sun scours Tel Aviv's Bauhaus-style "White City", it's cool down in the compact "cellar" theatre of Habima.

One of four auditoriums in the sleek, streamlined headquarters where Israel's national theatre has returned after the building's five-year restoration, it has seating on three sides and eyeball-to-eyeball contact between actors and audience. Ilan Ronen, Habima's artistic director, learned his trade with Mike Alfreds at the Khan Theatre in Jerusalem before running Tel Aviv's other leading company, the Cameri. He chose this intimate basement as the best preparation for Habima's two performances in Hebrew of The Merchant of Venice, part of the Globe's multi-lingual Shakespeare festival.

The actors run through a few scenes for me, including Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech. Bruised, plaintive, bewildered more than furious, Yaakov Cohen makes a heart-rending Shylock. A Sephardic Jew who migrated from Morocco, Cohen proved a divisive choice for an always-contentious part. "It's the first time in Israel that a Sephardic actor has played this role," says Ilan Ronen, who thinks that prejudice against Jews of Middle Eastern origin persists. When people criticised the casting, "the official reason was that he's a comedian. The unofficial reason is that he's a Sephardi."

Cohen (his words translated by his colleagues) explains his stance on Shylock. "He's not like this," he says of the urge for revenge, "but he's brought to the edge. He's a victim of all that people are doing to him." When the pound-of-flesh moment arrives, and an imaginary revenge on his Christian tormentors takes the form of an all-too-real knife, "He wants to do it, yet he wants someone to stop him. Inside, there's a big turmoil."

As Ronen notes, Cohen's Shylock "creates a lot of empathy. There's no aggression coming from him. You feel that he's victim rather than a villain. He's a result of the circumstances he's been living in. Politically, when you push someone to the edge, he can be very violent. This is what happens to minorities." A little later, Ronen offers a comparison that so startles me that I ask him to repeat it. For the director, Shylock as his vengeance nears becomes "almost like a shahid". A shahid, a martyr? The Arabic word often implies a suicide bomber. So – this is my gloss, not explicitly Ronen's – the slow-kindling anger of the archetypal Jewish scapegoat illuminates the nothing-to-lose rage of Islamist militants. "And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that."

Habima owes its origins as an official theatre to a certain Joseph Stalin. After the Russian Revolution, the then Commissar of Nationalities approved the quixotic venture of a group of Jewish actors – led by Nachum Zemach – who had begun to perform in modern Hebrew. With support from the legendary Stanislavski, they flourished as a co-operative, and toured abroad to acclaim – especially for their signature show, Ansky's The Dybbuk. After Soviet anti-Zionists gained the upper hand, Habima migrated: first to the US then, in 1931, to Tel Aviv in British-mandate Palestine. In the foyer of the gleaming new HQ, a slab rescued from the old theatre records in Hebrew the High Commissioner's inauguration of their first home.

In Britain today, Habima's visit to the Globe has come to mean only one thing. To boycott or not to boycott? That has been the sole permitted question. Actors, writers and directors – from Mike Leigh to Mark Rylance – called for Habima to be disinvited.

The company receives around 30 per cent of its funding from the Israeli state. It has on a handful of occasions performed in Israeli settlements on occupied land in the West Bank – notably in fast-expanding Ariel. The UN deems these settlements illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. In the UK, the theatre community has split over the boycott campaign, and the Globe shows will not pass without incident. "With music, you can continue to play," Ronen tells me, a little wearily, as he recalls the disruption during the Israel Philharmonic's Prom last summer. "In theatre, I'm not sure that you can do the same. So people might get two shows on one ticket! I hope that we'll survive."

Some Habima supporters, he stresses, "were against the whole idea of taking what they thought was an anti-Semitic play to London." As for the settlement issue, home-grown criticism started earlier and hit harder than anything yet heard beside the Thames. In 2010, 60 Israeli theatre professionals signed an open letter condemning publicly funded companies for putting on shows in Ariel. Earlier this month, dramatist Vardit Shalfy censured Habima in the liberal daily Haaretz for travelling down an "apartheid highway" "to perform at a glamorous, brand-new Hall of Culture...within touching distance of a refugee camp whose residents live under Israeli military rule".

For Ronen, Habima must perform for all Israelis. To objectors, the settlements are not Israel. Ronen notes that his company has pioneered productions that aim to cross the region's abysmally deep divides. "From the first moment I came here, I knew that I wanted to use my personal connections... to create dialogue with Palestinian artists." Stories of migration, of exile, of displacement, fill the recent repertoire. The Third Generation, co-produced with Berlin's Schaubühne, brings together Palestinian, Jewish and German perspectives to interrogate the legacy of the Holocaust. A Railway to Damascus, which Habima took to Ariel, explores the roots of today's tensions in the upheavals of the 1940s. "I think it's very important that people sitting in Ariel should understand the sources of the Arab-Israeli conflict during the British Mandate," Ronen insists. Theatre can help to puncture the political bubble of life in the settlements: "I should confront the people who are against my ideology." He adds that "If we were censored, then you would have a case for protest – and I would protest with you."

Ronen argues that the motive for each boycott shifts: collaboration with the army in the case of the Israel Phil; Ariel for Habima. Behind them, he suspects, lies the drive to exclude all Israeli artists from the international arena. When I attended a post-performance discussion at the Globe after the Palestinian actors of Ashtar Theatre had given their excellent Richard II, their objections to Habima's invitation stemmed from the general platform of the BDS (boycott, disinvestment, sanctions) campaign. It did not pivot on the settlements. "It's not just Habima, it's any Israeli organisation," said Nicola Zreineh of Ashtar, who played the rebel Bolingbroke. "For us as Palestinians, we call for a boycott for as long as we are under military occupation; for as long as there is no justice in our country; for as long as we are deprived of very basic rights as human beings.

"It's possible for Bolingbroke to enter Jerusalem," he said – at the play's end, the newly crowned Henry IV plans a cleansing pilgrimage to the Holy land – "but not for me! Don't forget that we are besieged – all of us, all the Palestinians."

Habima and Ashtar seem to stand on either side of a partition as high as the Separation Wall that snakes like a vast scar across the lovely springtime hillsides. As for Ilan Ronen, he voices his support for the "fantastic" performing arts of the Palestinian West Bank. And he adds, enigmatically, that "even if there is no official dialogue, there is always mediation. There are meetings all the time." On the boycott call, however, Habima stands its ground. "We come to the Globe along with 37 countries and languages. And this is the only theatre, and the only language, that should be boycotted? Everything is OK in those other countries – no problem at all? Artists should not boycott other artists... I think, as an artist, that this is wrong. We should have a dialogue with everybody. We should discuss and disagree."

Habima Theatre's 'The Merchant of Venice', the Globe, London SE1 (020 7401 9919) today and tomorrow

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker